Disappearing

It might be easy to suppose that horror uses religion gratuitously.  Or it may be that the connection runs much deeper.  Yes, many people are still religious as growing numbers are becoming less so, but both kinds watch horror.  As is usual for a guy who doesn’t get out much, I learn about movies often by reading about them in various analyses.  That’s how I came across the box-office flop, Vanishing on 7th Street.  While various critics point out its flaws, to me it watches like an extended Twilight Zone episode, exploring interpersonal dynamics when a bad situation overcomes a community.  For reasons unexplained, people without a light source disappear.  This is somewhere not too far from Chicago, but we don’t know exactly where.  Five people have managed to survive and four of them end up in a bar that has power because of a back-up generator.

Jim, an African-American boy, is waiting for his mother to return to the tavern.  She was the bar tender but had run to the local church to find other people because the lights were on.  She didn’t return and three other people make their way to the bar.  Disagreeing on a course of action, or what has happened, they try to work together to stay in the light.  Jim eventually makes a break for the church.  He alone manages to survive there until daylight reveals a young girl named Briana, spotted throughout the movie, with a solar-powered flashlight.  The others have all vanished, so Jim and Briana decide to try to make it to Chicago together as night falls.

Wikipedia calls the film “post-apocalyptic,” but I would say it’s more metaphorical.  The only two characters to survive do so by finding refuge in a church.  No prayers are said, but candles keep the darkness and its dangers at bay.  There’s plenty to reflect on here, even though we don’t know what has led to this situation or why the shadows snatch people, leaving rapture piles of clothes all over the place.  Not a fast-paced movie, it’s a film with only one jump-startle and plenty of time to think.  That was my take on it.  Not all horror has to be slasher-oriented.  I was really puzzled why this one ended up with an R rating.  Sometimes horror just makes you think.  Often that thinking involves reflections on the meaning of life.  Some would call that philosophy, but those who consider the light and its relationship to darkness tend to call it religion.


Religion in Its Place

The other day at work I virtually “met” someone else from western Pennsylvania.  It came about in an odd way.  We were both in an online author talk and my colleague put something in the chat about a particular social issue being purely religious for some parts of the country, like his native western Pennsylvania.  I immediately knew what he meant.  For those who think religion is irrelevant, look at the make-up of our government.  Those preachers in rural places wield incredible power.  Their word is law and because of the shortsightedness of our founders, the rural few have amazing sway over the vast majority of the urbanites.  We need each other, of course, but not all have educated themselves on the issues.  When they want to vote they turn to their preachers for the answers.

Interestingly enough, churches lose their tax-exempt status (and thus many can’t afford to survive) if they openly back a political party.  They are required by the law they game to remain party neutral.  Of course, depending on who appointed a federal judge, they are often willing to overlook that particular law.  You get the sense that God favors some commandments over the others anyway.  But back to the homeland—western Pennsylvania is a preacher-dominated part of the country.  That may well have been what set me off on this strange track I follow instead of a career.  We were a church-going family in a church-dominated part of the state.  If you took what you heard on Sunday seriously, we should all be studying religion, down on our knees.

My colleague brought something into focus for me.  The religiously convinced will accept no other evidence.  They’ll refuse vaccines that could save their lives.  They’ll say women and blacks are lesser humans.  They’ll even—since I pay taxes this is okay—vote Republican.  Clergy have been sidelined by much of what’s going on in society.  They are hardly irrelevant, however.  I recently had a minister tell me that if I were to make a formal “questing” status with a denomination I could pick up some preaching cash on weekends.  Without that status, this clergy asked me, “why should anyone listen to you?”  Ah, there’s the rub, you see.  Although I’ve studied religion more than many clergy, and taught those who are now clergy,  I’m not qualified to make it official.  Perhaps it would be different if I were from somewhere else.  


Roman Mythology

A recent game of Redactle led to a family discussion of Roman mythology.  I had to flex some muscles unused since my last full semester at Rutgers, but I was pleased that the old learning is still there.  One of the first things people notice about Roman mythology is its lackluster nature.  Rather like current-day politicians, the Romans mostly lacked imagination when it comes to compelling stories.  Roman religion consisted largely of cult—that is the enacting of sacrifices and learning how to read omens.  They had no “Bible” and really no other collection of myths, apart from what they borrowed from the Greeks (who borrowed, in turn, much from Semitic mythology).  They mapped their various gods—some from the Etruscans—onto the Greek pantheon and made do with other peoples’ stories.

Rome’s native myths largely focused on their own history and human characters—again, the parallels with Republican sanitized American history are apt—but also deal with serious issues.  In the words of T. P. Wiseman, “How does well-meaning authority turn into murderous tyranny?”  (I resist footnoting blog posts, but this is from the preface of his book The Myths of Rome.)  Like modern politicians, they believed their origins were divine.  The gods had chosen them to be a superpower.  We might scratch our heads and ask ourselves where the Roman Empire is today, even as Italy elects hard-right leaders.  We learn nothing from history.  Nothing.

So let’s turn to mythology instead.  Or at least religion.  Roman religious writing was often kept secret—the purview of priests only.  Some of this survived into early Roman Catholic ideas about keeping Scripture to the priests.  Religious writings are dangerous if they get out there among hoi polloi (or “hot polo” as my autocorrect suggests).  Ironically, those of us sent off to specialized schools to learn this stuff are, in these days, generally ignored.  Roman officials were often anxious to know what oracles said.  Today televangelists and their ilk seem to be the ticket.  Anyone can be an expert if they talk loud enough.  And yet the Romans admired the Greek intellectual life.  The creativity with which they handled their gods.  There was much to be emulated there.  Roman Jupiter was the protector of the military (budget, one is prompted to write—forgive me if my Muse is a little unruly this morning).  And yet it was the Roman authorities who crucified Jesus.  We may indeed still learn something from Roman mythology.

Hebert James Draper, The Lament for Icarus, public domain via Wikimedia Commons

From Russia

A New York Times headline recently caught my eye.  “Russia opened a murder investigation into a car blast near Moscow.”  I wondered how a country that’s an aggressor at war, killing civilians in Ukraine every day, would be interested in something so petty as murder.  Then I saw the rest of the headline: “that killed the daughter of an influential ally of President Vladimir Putin.”  So there it is—some lives are more valuable than others.  Don’t get me wrong—I’m saddened by this (and any) murder.  And the use of violence to get what one wants is unethical.  Justice in this world, however, is based on unequal standards.  The supporters of Putins and Trumps matter more than any other people.  Death should not effect them the same way it effects civilians being missiled and shot.

Throughout all this we might wonder where the voice of the church is.  Churches, as institutions interested in power, are political players even when there’s no state religion.  The Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church supports Putin implicitly.  With the power of Russia, the power of the church rises.  A few thousand dead civilians, well, let God sort them out.  Churches become corrupt when they become politically powerful.  Politics is one of the most polluting things humans can do.  Long ago Lord Acton put it this way: “All power tends to corrupt; absolute power corrupts absolutely.”  Churches got into power-brokering in the fourth century and we’ve seen the results ever since.  It’s not just Christianity, however; Islam makes it political and yes, even Buddhism and Hinduism incite violence when they become politicized.  A religious body that takes its mythology too seriously becomes dangerous when it tastes political power.  The world has many mythological figures.

What really took my breath away, however, is how many state resources will be devoted to finding and prosecuting those who killed one government supporter—we must find and punish those responsible—while thousands lie dead with the Russian government as their killers.  Other nations are just as guilty of course, but there’s a karmic imbalance when that nation is an aggressor in war.  Would you have ever expected a fair trial in Nazi Germany?  Does not unprovoked war make a mockery of the very concept of justice itself?  Justice, of course, means fair treatment.  For all.  She’s pictured as wearing a blindfold, after all.  She’s perhaps one of those mythical figures as well.


Remember the Doorway

I’m glad it has a name.  And I’m also, relievedly, glad it’s normal.  The Doorway Effect.  I’m sure it’s happened to you.  You walk into a room and immediately forget what you came in for.  I’ve been afraid of some early onset of something because I’ve noticed it more and more, but it turns out that this is a normal brain function.  A recent article by Jessica Estrada explains that our brains are constantly framing.  A large part of that framing has to do with our physical location.  When you step through a doorway that framing changes and some of the residue (what I came in here for) might easily get left in your previous location.  In other words, it seems to be an effect of humans making different rooms for different purposes.  Our thought lingers in the place it was first born.

Photo by Filip Kominik on Unsplash

Our brains are fascinating organs.  Every time I read about how children’s brains form, I wish I’d studied psychology instead of religion.  How we could help our children if we understood what their brains just aren’t capable of doing just yet!  How many spankings could have been avoided if parents understood brain development?  Beating someone doesn’t teach anything.  Instead, we might try to learn how minds use brains.  Young boys can be quite reckless.  One of the reasons?  Their brains haven’t developed enough yet to think through the consequences of their actions.  Yes, they can push limits for other reasons, but their thinking simply doesn’t yet involve adult caution that (hopefully) comes with a developing brain.  One of the real consequences of this, for which I’ll volunteer as a poster child, is religion.

Children’s brains are not developed enough to accept and comprehend religious thinking until they’re about 12.  We’ve known this for many decades now.  And yet, the theology of parents means they try to convince their children of religious truths before their brains are developed enough to sort it out.  Look at Congress and the Supreme Court to see the results of this.  Most people never seriously question their religion.  For many it was instilled in them as children, before their brains could properly process it.  The rest of the country pays for it with laws then enact.  We’ve known about this for decades and have decided that studying religion is a waste of time.  But I digress.  Now I forget what I started to say when I began this post.


Lost Civilizations

At the rate rain forests are being decimated for our lust for beef, it seems amazing that there are any unexplored regions left at all.  That’s what makes Douglas Preston’s account of visiting the fabled Ciudad Blanco, a lost Honduran city, so compelling.  Like most intelligent people, Preston is ambivalent about the discovery he chronicled.  The pristine jungle he encountered had to be cleared, at least in part, to allow for exploration of a lost civilization.  But what an adventure it was!  The danger of drug lords, a volatile government, large poisonous snakes, and ruins discovered by lidar combine in a true tale of danger and fascination.  As with Rudolf Otto’s description of the holy, this is something that fascinates and terrifies simultaneously.  And it’s controversial.

The Lost City of the Monkey God crosses several boundaries.  It discusses not only “Indiana Jones”-style archaeology, it involves one of the last unexplored places on earth.  It doesn’t sugar-coat the genocide initiated by Europeans—in fact, Preston describes some of the diseases in graphic detail—and he doesn’t excuse the guilt.  The book also addresses global warming and the possibilities of a global pandemic (the book was published in 2017).  Preston contracted Leishmaniasis while in the jungle and notes that as the globe warms up, it is making its way north.  The descriptions aren’t for the faint of heart, nor are his descriptions of the politics of treatment.  The first part of the book, describing the people and the set up of the base-camp show Preston’s chops as a thriller writer.  His encounter with a fer-de-lance had me checking the floor in the dark when I got up in the morning.

The civilization of the city, now known by the more respectable title City of the Jaguar, was unknown.  It was not Mayan.  The city was likely abandoned because of disease brought to the Americas by Europeans.  Even so, his description of the society in which the ruling classes keep their power by displaying their own sanctity that the average person doesn’t question rang true.  Societies from the beginning have used that playbook.  Convince people that the gods (or God) has revealed certain things that they (the ruling class) understand, and everyone else falls in line.  We see it even now as the messianic Trump following falls for it yet again.  This is a quick read, written much alike a thriller.  A few years ago I read Preston’s engaging Dinosaurs in the Attic.  I’m thinking now that some of his thrillers should also be on my list.


Whiggery

It’s difficult to keep track sometimes.  You see, I’m reading a book that makes frequent reference to the Whigs.  The thing about titles is they change meaning over time.  Whigs, in America, became Republicans.  This was back when the Republican Party was the liberal one.  Whigs in Britain, where the party started, believed in the power of the people rather than the absolute right of kings.  Today’s Republican, as events of the past few years have shown, is an authoritarian.  This swapping of party characters allows Republicans today to claim to be the “party of Lincoln,” although in today’s political landscape Lincoln would have been a Democrat.  So whatever happened to the Whigs?  Their basic ideology is still alive and, for the moment, embodied in the Democratic party.

“Whig” could also be used as a supporter of the American side against the “Loyalists” in the Revolution.  Loyalists tended to be what were called Tories back home.  A Tory supported the power of the monarchy.  In other words, they were conservatives.  All of this changing around of labels makes me wonder just how helpful they really are.  Individuals tend to dislike those who fall into the opposite camp—a factor politicians have been using to divide and conquer.  I try to imagine what that world might be like if honesty were more common among those in elected office.  Starting in 2016 we entered into a new era of the politics of hatred and we will be paying the price of that for many years to come.  We are all just people; why can’t we act like it?

When I registered to vote at 18, I registered as an independent.  I didn’t like the idea of being classed into a party.  There have been Democratic candidates I didn’t like—my party’s not my religion—but none of them has advocated hatred of others as their only platform.  Analysts have long written that a two-party system is faulty and likely to lead to abuse.  We’re living through it right now.  Fiscal conservatives have no choice when the officials in their party back Trump, despite having vocally expressed how badly he reigned and how dangerous he is.  A viable third option is needed, and it would also prevent electoral college shenanigans (as would ranked-choice voting).  Maybe this third-choice party could adopt the venerable title of Whigs.  After all, in its long history this party has played both sides of the political spectrum.  Or perhaps those favoring authoritarianism could use the name Tory.  At least there’s an honesty to it.

Wikimedia: after John Greenhill, oil on canvas, (circa 1672-1673). No matter his party, that’s a wig!

State and Church

An interesting article by Grace Davie notes how Patriarch Kirill,  the Patriarch of Moscow and all Rus´, has been backing Vladimir Putin in his war of human atrocities against Ukraine.  Why? Both men fear “godless” influence from the west.  Think of it as a “Russia first” policy.  Both believe Russian Orthodoxy preserves the “one true faith,” and so an ecclesiastical leader yet again believes he (aren’t they always he’s?) understands politics even as women and children are killed in the bringing of God’s kingdom on earth.  The distorted theology of imperialistic Christianity has caused untold suffering in the world.  God backed by nukes is an apocalyptic situation, but then the Orthodox don’t really take too much stock in the book of Revelation.

Photo credit: Michael Goltz, via Wikimedia Commons

In the midst of all of this, as well as our own versions of it in America, I wonder where the teachings of a prophet who advocated care for the stranger went.  Too bad he never stated directly, “Love thine enemies.”  That sounds radically leftist, doesn’t it?  No, those who think like this ignore the constant refrain of love in the New Testament to focus on a verse or two that say a man shouldn’t lie with a man.  Where’s Socrates when we need him?  Or even Tchaikovsky?  Religion becomes doubly dangerous when it has political backing.  “Love thy neighbor” becomes “kill thy enemy.”  And you must say your country is the greatest in the world and all others are inferior.  Sounds like something a carpenter from Nazareth would’ve agreed on.

Too much gold in the eye, it seems, can lead to spiritual blindness.  Established churches grow quite comfortable when governments hold them close.  The problem is an ancient one.  Even in the biblical world temple and palace mutually supported one another.  The idea of a country where no church ruled the state was a new one a few centuries back.  If different churches ruled neighboring nations the result was, of course, war.  Davie makes the point in her article that the Ukrainian Orthodox wanted some autonomy, which is the Orthodox way generally.  But the coffers in Russia swell more when you get cuts from all the others.  Churches and other businesses worldwide seem to know that by instinct.  But to back a ruler who has civilians, women, and children murdered to keep the godless out?  If that’s godly behavior then we’d better all get down on our knees.  


Ignoring or Ignorance?

As someone whose career has always been about the Bible, I’ve noticed that many intelligent people are naive.  They seem to believe that since they’ve outgrown the need for religion that it doesn’t exist among the majority.  I guess that’s another way of saying their thinking tends toward elitist.  The vast majority of people in the world are religious.  Among the elites, since about the sixties, there’s been the fervent belief that religion will die out in the face of science.  That hasn’t happened, of course, and it’s not likely to.  In the meanwhile, the idea persists and replicates itself and religion is ignored until people fly jets into towers or elect Trump or commit some other extremely catastrophic act.  There’s then usually a flare up of interest that dies down when the danger is past.

I wasn’t very socially aware in the sixties.  I was quite religious, though.  The religious, although always in the majority, constantly talked about being under threat of extinction.  There was, even then, a paranoia about being discounted.  Some of the elites realized that by pretending to be religious themselves they could make use of those numbers.  In other words there are forces, not from any divine source, keeping the interest in religion high.  Only the naive ignore it.  That’s one of the reasons it distresses me to see institutions of higher education cutting religion programs.  It plays into the worst sort of elitism to ignore the vast majority of the human population.  Meanwhile, subjects that bring in cash thrive.

Should we look away?

Growing up in an uneducated environment may have been a hidden blessing.  It can sometimes instill a lifelong desire to learn, even if your outlook is discounted.  I’ve always believed in education, and when it wasn’t, or isn’t, available I tend to self medicate by reading.  Reading about religion is always a learning experience.  There’s something profoundly human about it.  Acknowledging that something greater than ourselves is out there, whether you want to face it as divine or natural, seems wise to me.  I think we all know it’s there.  How we choose to respond to it, however, differs widely.  We’ve had glimpses of what the universe would be like if humans were the most puissant beings out there.  The results, based on the headlines, aren’t terribly encouraging.  I see these things and say something, but it’s ever so easy to ignore someone whose career has always been about the Bible.


Justice Hungry

Social justice is very important to me.  At the same time I realize I’m just a single individual, and a small one at that.  I have a little group of internet friends (rather strangely called “followers”) but what I do and write has barely an impact with so much wrong in the world.  I suspect most people fall into this same dilemma.  A recent thread on the local Nextdoor app, for instance, reminded me how much people care for strangers in difficult times.  I side with Batman here—people are generally good.  Most of us are easily led, however.  And as we were taught in kindergarten, just one bad person spoils it for everyone.  So we find ourselves in a world disastrously off kilter and with nobody able to fix the problem.  Problems.  There are so many that it’s overwhelming.

Democracy seems like a good idea.  The problem is that the system is easily gamed by autocrats.  World news shows us the Hitler’s playbook is alive and well, even, if not especially, among “Christian” nations.  Jesus had no political power.  As soon as his followers gained it, the message of their master faded.  Today it’s unrecognizable.  “Bible believing” Christians who violate every principle in the Good Book to retain power is hardly something the carpenter from Nazareth would’ve advocated, or even, I venture, comprehended.  Bullies with only their own interests in mind take up the reins of state and convoluted laws allow them to do so.  The selfish win.

Photo by Sarah Ardin on Unsplash

I have great admiration for the people I know who work for social justice incessantly.  The kind of people you tremble to see coming because you know you can never measure up to their level of commitment.  Needed change, however, comes in small steps.  People are fearful and don’t welcome overnight paradigm shifts.  I admire social justice warriors even as I admire hose who throw themselves in front of buses or trains to save others.  I find myself watching their heroic action while calculating the best way to help, overthinking the problem.  I’ve marched in a number of protests, and it felt good.  I’ve not been able to free myself from capitalism long enough to really make a difference, I fear.  An idealist, conceivably, but not, I hope, an unawoken one.  So I struggle for justice and contribute what I can to right causes.  At the same time I’m compelled to acknowledge and thank those who do it so much better than I ever will.


Last Baptist?

The Southern Baptist Convention is the largest Protestant denomination in the United States.  It’s the core of a powerful voting bloc that gave electoral (but not popular) victory to Donald Trump.  It’s also the location of an attempted takeover by a fascist faction that wants to make Christianity the most oppressive religion in the history of the world (moreso than it has already been).  This past week the Convention narrowly avoided this by electing a moderate president for the year.  The struggle was real and the consequences very deep.  The true cost of Trump’s presidency will continue to emerge for years to come.  Permission was given for extremists to be vocal and validated and bad behavior was relabeled as “Christian.”

Roger Williams’ first Baptist church (in the country)

We, as a society, have a bad habit of ignoring things we don’t believe in.  Just because many educated people have come to see the lie behind much of what “Christians” say, they assume they don’t need to pay attention to them.  Years of ignoring the insidious actions of many conservative Christian groups has led us to a political precipice where many months after the fact some people who can’t count still believe 232 is greater than 306.  While some may wonder how we’ve come to this point the answer is obvious—there are groups of “Christians,” organized and well funded, who’ve been active in politics for many decades.  The Southern Baptist Convention wanted, in some sectors, to make that official.  They wished to be Trump’s own party.  They wanted white supremacy to be the norm, women to be chattels of men, and those whose sexuality differs to be criminals.  And they nearly won.

We ignore religion at our peril.  A recent study by the British Academy has shown that in the United Kingdom the study of religion is in decline.  I know of no similar study this side of the Atlantic, but anecdotal evidence suggests the same, if not worse here.  Those who study religion from within other disciplines such as sociology, history, or psychology, don’t really address the question of what religion truly is.  People experience religion as extremely urgent.  Misguided leaders instruct them that their version of God has endorsed the very tactics the Bible itself excoriates.  When the largest Protestant denomination is nearly taken over by political extremists, we should be paying attention.  A troubling template was, despite the majority vote, forced upon us in 2016.  So much so that it feels like it was a decade ago and we suffered from it for longer than we have.  And the kettle is still boiling, only this time those dancing about it claim to be Christian.


Conflicting Kingdoms

There is reason to be afraid.  Yes, I watch horror but the reason I suggest being afraid is because of a documentary titled ’Til Kingdom Come.  Directed by Maya Zinshtein, the film examines Christian evangelical support for Israel.  Primarily set in Binghamton, Kentucky, the interviews indicate a number of frightening implications.  One, that support for Jews is based on a “convert or die” model.  These evangelicals have the end times mapped out and believe the Bible is a fortune-telling book par excellence.  This doesn’t surprise me since I grew up with some of those very same charts and timelines.  It doesn’t surprise, but it scares.  These true believers never reflect or question their beliefs and this leads them to an emotional coldness that is antithetical to the sympathy Jesus preached.

A second fear factor here is just how organized and just how good at raising money the various Israeli lobbies are.  When evangelicals are elected to congress, these groups have open doors in Washington.  Those shown in the documentary are unfailing in their flattery of Trump.  The Jewish groups are clearly using the Christians to push and anti-Palestinian agenda while the evangelicals, for their part, are using the Jews to force God’s hand in sending Jesus back to end the world.  Under the Trump administration we were nearly pushed to the brink by elected officials who fervently pray for the end of the world.  This should keep any sane person up at night.

The beliefs of these evangelical groups have evolved to the point of not being recognizable as anything Jesus taught.  The conservative social agenda has been mistaken for the Gospel and these groups despise anyone who approaches the Bible to learn what it actually says.  Again, having grown up with this viewpoint none of it comes as a surprise.  I know it’s possible for people to grow out of it.  Watching overweight televangelists stirring up massive crowds to donate to a gospel of hate is nevertheless troubling.  Early on one of the pastors admits that they indoctrinate their children.  He sees no problem with that, although he seems embarrassed to have been caught saying it on film.  One lone mainline pastor, a Palestinian resident of Bethlehem, speaks out against this distortion of the Christian message.  One of the evangelicals walks away from a conversation with him and his heartfelt sympathy for his fellow Palestinians only to say the pastor’s theology is anti-Semitic.  ’Til Kingdom Come is a disturbing documentary.  I think I’ll watch a horror film to calm down.


Bible, or Not?

Chosenness comes with a price.  Everyone, it seems, wants to feel special.  One way to ensure that feeling is to believe that you were specially chosen by God to fill a pre-ordained mission on earth.  Since such views are always human views there will be inevitable conflict when another group thinks itself the truly chosen one.  The process goes on and on with history laying waste one claim after another, but belief continues on just the same.  America is a young country, at least compared to much of the world.  Those who “govern” it (originally invaders) felt they were on a mission from God.  Believing themselves the “new Israel” they felt a Calvinistic faith was the only true one.  The people who put the government together were largely deists who’d left that thinking behind.

A recent story in the Washington Post cites such concerns with the God Bless the USA Bible, on sale in September.  This particular Bible is bound together with the US Constitution.  The reason people are concerned is a valid one—whenever something is bound with the Bible a significant number of people can’t tell the Bible from the other content.  Believing the Bible to be magically revealed by God, the entire content between the covers becomes sacred revelation.  Putting a secular document like the Constitution in there suggests to some (perhaps many) that said Constitution belongs to the canon of Scripture.  It’s a real enough concern, as easily attested by any who teach the Bible.  Even college-level students don’t know what’s Bible and what’s commentary.

Photo credit: U.S. National Archives and Records Administration, via Wikimedia Commons
Photo credit: U.S. National Archives and Records Administration, via Wikimedia Commons

Both the Good Book and the Constitution are documents in the public domain.  You can do with them what you please.  You could bind the King James Bible together with Moby-Dick if you wanted to, and if you wanted to make a long book even longer.  The price is confusion among those who can’t really tell the difference.  Many of the more evangelical stripe say “I don’t interpret the Bible, I just read it.”   Putting aside that reading is interpretation, the problem becomes clear.  That which is bound together in one book is one book.  After all, The Book of Mormon mentions Jesus in America.  The hazy view that many readers have of what’s actually in the Bible makes it dangerous to put other documents together with it.  The problem becomes clear when a nation believes itself chosen.  Chosen for dominion, it look to a specific book in support of that idea.  Even if it doesn’t know much about what that book actually says.


Meanness

There’s often a meanness to literalist religions.  A sense that if they can keep their particular interpretation of God’s will, then anybody can.  No compassion.  No forgiveness.  Considering the base messages of nearly all those religions that harbor fundamentalists, that attitude is quite surprising.  Indeed, it ceases to be religion at all and becomes merely a facade of one.  The recovery of the body of Khaled al-Asaad is what brought this to mind.  Back in 2015 al-Asaad, an 82-year old archaeologist, was beheaded by the extremist Islamic State group in Syria.  Al-Asaad had spent his life excavating and attempting to understand the site of Palmyra.  The Islamic State was determined to destroy what they considered “idols” or offensive images.  When the octogenarian refused to tell them where they could find further antiquities to destroy, they beheaded him.

This isn’t finger-pointing at Islam.  Islam is a highly moral religion that values peace.  What it has in common with Christianity, apart from some shared history and theology, is that it fosters extremists.  Extremism may be fueled by religion but it’s not religious.  The adherents are often mean, hard-line individuals who have trouble distinguishing the shades of gray that make up so much of life.  As a result of the Islamic State movement, many antiquities that had survived for thousands of years were destroyed forever.  There were heroes like Khaled al-Asaad (we might even call them saints) who tried to protect these irreplaceable artifacts.  Religion has no feud with the past.  In fact, religions consciously build on their pasts.  Continuity is important to them.

Extremism of this kind is a fairly new blending of religion and politics.  As recently as the sixties it was felt that religion and politics should be compartmentalized.  Kept separate.  When the Republican Party realized in the seventies that evangelicals could be made into a voting bloc, religion became politicized.  This happened elsewhere around the world.  “True believers”—the very term suggests the rest of us believers aren’t true—tasting political power, realized they could use their meanness to make the rest of the world in their own unforgiving image.  We’ve been living with the consequences ever since.  Even now Republican lawmakers fear reprisals of Trump supporters if they dare accept the truth.  In other words, extremist religion has pitched its battle against the truth itself.  That would be ironic if it weren’t so terrifying.  No religion that I know has meanness among its central tenets.  It takes literalism to make it one.


Goats, Sheep, and Politics

Reasonable evangelicals need a new name.  As a voting bloc, evangelicals have, according to many of their leaders, fallen from grace.  Ironically it was the “draw”—whatever that could possibly be—of the cult of Donald Trump that caused it.  While encouraging their sheep to vote for him both in 2016 and 2020, some of these leaders had their eyes opened to what many of us saw from the beginning, but it took an insurrection to pry their lids apart.  A story by Rachel Martin on NPR, “’How Did We Get Here?’ A Call for an Evangelical Reckoning on Trump” explores this unfortunate, and avoidable catastrophe.  Such evangelicals don’t excel at fact-checking.  It’s far easier to believe what you’re told by a dynamic individual.  Along the way they’ve jettisoned the morality of that “old time religion” for the lust of power.  Now some of their leaders are wondering what they’ve done.

I’m not one to idolize the 1950s.  Heck, I wasn’t even born yet.  One truth from them, however, has always stayed with me: religion and politics don’t mix.  Try this experiment some time: ask Trump evangelicals what party their church (if it existed then) supported in the 1950s.  Many Christians were Democrats, particularly in the south.  Oh, if they confess this they’ll start using language about the Dems falling from grace (while still defending Trump, who can never fall from anything), shifting the onus back onto a theology not even half-baked.  Now their ministers are trying to remind them that morality actually is part of being an evangelical.  A very small part, but not completely evaporated.

History will teach us, if we’ll let it.  Richard Nixon saw evangelical voters as a bloc.  Himself a Quaker (currently among the most liberal of Protestant denominations, and devoted to peace), he was a political opportunist.  Evangelicals are taught that they are sheep.  Sheep are easily herded.  Imagine what might happen if their leaders tried to get them to think for themselves.  To fact check.  I used to tell my students not to take my word for things just because I could call myself “doctor.”  Check my sources.  See if I might’ve missed something.  This is the way knowledge progresses.  The NPR story gives me a modicum of hope.  Some leaders are realizing that their own mindless support of a known criminal—before he even got the nomination in 2016—was maybe a bad idea.  Of course, others still defend his actions after his attempted insurrection.  Sheep, if fed, will always follow.