Tag Archives: religion and politics

Bible Belts

The Bible’s been back in the news. Specifically the Bible and politics. Like twins separated at birth. Jeff Mateer, Trump’s nominee for a federal judgeship, has gone on record saying Satan’s plan is working. Perhaps even more stridently, Roy Moore down in the Sweet Home state has been quite vocal that the Christian God is the one who makes America’s laws. Standing on “biblical principles” that have nothing to do with the actual Bible, politicians have found a biblically illiterate population a field of white-headed grain ready for the reaping. As sure as the sparks fly upward. The response in the educated class is predictable. Cut any funding for departments studying religion. Haven’t you heard? It’s dead!

Having grown up in a conservative, religious family, and working my way through a doctorate in a closely related field, I’ve been watching in dismay as the past quarter-century has been marked by decreasing positions in religious studies. If you can pull your eyes from the headlines surely you’ll agree that religion is something we just can’t afford to study. Wasting resources, it is, since if you teach economics you have an actual shot at the White House. Yee-haw! Pull out your six-shooter and celebrate! And no, “yee-haw” is not etymologically related to the name of the deity of ancient Israel. It’s only a matter of time before discovery of who’s been uncovering whom’s nakedness becomes public. Then you just need to say the Bible says nothing about divorce. It’s okay, nobody will bother to look it up. Intellectuals will scratch their heads—why didn’t somebody tell us religion actually motivated people?

Universities (consider the name!) used to be places where the value of all subjects was acknowledged. Of course, where there’s knowledge there’s money to be made. Once you’ve gone to the dark side, there’s no coming back. Departments that don’t earn mammon must go the way of the mammoth. Times have become so hard it’a almost like schools want to open Religion Departments just so they have something to shut down. We’ve got to keep those fields that are actually important going. Never mind if your funding depends on a government increasingly elected on the basis of perceived religious faith. Since the Prosperity Gospel is now in vogue, economic departments are always a safe investment. Slap a copy of the Ten Commandments on the courthouse lawn and follow the crowds to DC. Good thing none of this matters, otherwise me might be in real trouble.

Bible Hobby

Hobby Lobby needs a hobby. Besides the Bible, I mean. The amorphous media has been buzzing about the new Bible Museum set to open in Washington DC soon. The Lobbyists seem to think the Bible will save America. Not the Bible exactly, but their narrow, constricted, and uncritical view of the Bible. Seems a lot to expect from a museum. Museums, the Green family apparently hasn’t considered, are monuments to the past. When I last saw the politically incorrect Elgin Marbles I didn’t feel inspired to run out and build a parthenon. Instead, I simply wondered about the past and how it must’ve been cool back then. I didn’t want to live there though.

I’m sure there are great plans for the Good Book in the Bible Mausoleum. Looking at displays of the same text over and over can surely get a little dull, if we’re being honest with ourselves. I like Bibles as much as the next guy. Actually, I probably like them more than the next guy, but that’s beside the point. I don’t need to go to a museum to see them. There are Bibles all around my office, a mere arm’s length away. Here at home I can take in many of them at a glance—there are Bibles on three sides of me even as I write this from my favorite chair. Saving a nation that’s had the Bible from the very beginning sounds just a touch ambitious to me. But then, I’m no billionaire with nothing better to do with my money. There’s probably a tax write-off in there somewhere.

The thing about the Bible is, once you learn about it you can’t unlearn what becomes clear along the way. Cover your eyes or ears if you will, but we know the Bible had a long and complex history before becoming “the Bible.” It doesn’t have much of a plot without Revelation tacked onto the end—and seriously, that was one of the reasons it made it into Holy Writ to begin with! The circumstances that led to the Bible were often quite profane, in fact. It was the recognition of it as a sacred book that was a religious activity. The next step was to spread it as far as possible. That’s pretty much been done. The end result? The election of Donald Trump. If that’s salvation we’re all screwed. At least when we’re all standing in the bread line we’ll have a museum to visit while we wait. And it will be an encomium to something that was great once upon a time.

Opposites Distract

In the current political climate—and not just in the United States, as Brexit reminds us—opposites seem to be the order of the day. The middle ground seems to have fallen out as those frantic for turning back the clock to a day that never really ever existed make their voices louder and more strident. After seven millennia of progress, the apogee of mankind—and let’s be explicit that we mean rule by white men—was reached in “the greatest generation” and the happy days that followed in the 1950s. Those of us born to protest for an even greater idealism have, by our very nature, disrupted the smooth calm that fictitiously prevailed through the first half of the last century. In a new millennium the ghosts of the last century dictate policy. Would I have felt safer then?

The more I ponder this stark dualism, the more it seems that the origin is religious. In its most recent iteration that religion is branded as Christianity, but in actual fact the dualism goes much deeper than that. The adjective “Manichaean” has become popular with writers who discern a certain black and whiteness to our outlook. Mani wasn’t the first dualist in history. In fact, he was somewhat late to the game. We don’t know much about Zarathustra, or Zoroaster as the Greeks called him, but we do know that he set out to devise a new religion. His outlook was one that saw the world as opposites. For every good god there had to be a bad god. There was a struggle that would result in either going to a heaven or a hell. Just about every religion that has developed ever since has shared his conflicted outlook.

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As political pundits bellow more like hippopotami than elephants, trumpeting that those who are different are not to be trusted, we’ve come once again into a dualistic world. Pluralism and globalization are not without their critics. Technology, however, has ensured that they will continue apace. Some governments have tried to “switch off” the internet. Those on the other side of the Berlin Wall didn’t want the truth of what was happening on the other side to be known. They had invented a dualism that was protected with rifles and threats. The problem is things aren’t as simple as the Manichaeans would have us believe. Ours is a world of beautiful, glorious complexity. It takes religion, it seems, to make such a wonderful chaos into something far too simple to match reality.

The Lure of the Dark Side

I have to confess that the easy self-publishing of ebooks is a real temptation sometimes. Perhaps it’s one of those inexplicable side-effects of earning a Ph.D., but sometimes you have the impression you have something to say and traditional publishers just don’t agree. In my work life I see many clever ideas that, well, let’s be frank, just won’t sell. Publishers do have to keep an eye on whether a book can earn back the money put into it, and sometimes a good idea leads to no cash payout. So when you can easily sign up online—you don’t even have to talk to anyone—and post your unedited words right on Amazon and call it a book, well, anyone can be an author. So I was looking up books with the terms “Bible” and “America” on Amazon when I came up with Donald Trump in the Bible Code. I found the self-designed cover frightening, and the sentiments expressed in the description grounds for terror. Then I noticed it was only 15 pages long. I’ve written student evaluations that were longer than that.

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At three bucks, that’s—wait while I get my calculator—twenty cents a page. Now anyone who’s been able to read the original Bible Code and not cover a snicker or two will possibly find such a jeremiad palatable. After all, it’s a book! Somebody published it. Well, actually, all you need for self-publishing is an internet connection and at least one finger to type and click. Or a toe. You too can become an expert! No education required. Publishing fiction in such a format is one thing, but when people can’t tell a prestige publisher from a vanity press when it comes to factual material, we’re all in trouble.

There’s an old saying: “those who can’t do, teach.” I think I first came across this wisdom in a Peanuts cartoon, with all the gravitas that such implies. Editors, it seems, are not required for publishing. In fact, some of us who live by the word seem destined to die by the word. Even with connections I have trouble getting my ideas published. More than once I’ve lingered on Amazon’s CreateSpace page with my finger hovering over the mouse. Publication is one click away and some people make six digits a year publishing only on Amazon. Since I produce about 145,000 words a year on this blog alone (apart from my other writing), the urge is very strong at times. Then I look at that cover and I stay my finger as it hovers. I’ll wait a little longer. At least until November.

Le sacrifice humain

The thought of lying tied to an altar while you know someone is about to murder you is a terrifying one. For several reasons. Clearly, you don’t want to die. A more potent fear, however, may be that a darkly savage deity lies behind the dead. An angry, demanding god who desires nothing less than your annihilation. A story in the Washington Post by Sarah Kaplan suggests new findings by anthropologists now suggest a much more frightening rationale behind the world-wide phenomenon of human sacrifice. Kaplan reports that the article in Nature suggests human sacrifice was a means of social stratification. Maintaining control. Surely it must be obvious that those sacrificed are never the powerful and elite, unless, in a reversal of power structures, they suddenly find themselves on the wrong side of the might that makes right. Think of England’s King Charles I, for example. The societies scrutinized in this study, however, are less “civilized” and human sacrifice is a means to remind people who’s in charge.

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What I find interesting about this is how easily the discussion slips into religion being part of the mix. Those of us who’ve spent our professional youths earning advanced degrees in the field have long realized that there is a political element to religion. Temples, yes, were built to the glory of their gods. They were also built to help finance the monarchies in power. Even the temple in Jerusalem was only erected after the monarchy was finally entrenched. Priests supported kings and kings supported priests. They were the elites of society. As Nathan so aptly pointed out, you don’t sacrifice your own lamb when you’re rich. You take someone else’s. Thus it has always been with the exercise of power.

The Nature study examines stratified and egalitarian societies. Human sacrifice is most pronounced in the most stratified. Those where—let’s not be too blunt here—the top one percent want to demonstrate their obvious control over the rest, human sacrifice is most common. Is it really religious? I think the answer is obvious. The gods people worship are those that are most like themselves. The difference is largely one of power. Might, despite all protestations to the contrary, does make right. Or at least right-wing. Human sacrifice still occurs. If the new study is right (and who can argue with science?) there is only one way to avoid being at the wrong end of the sacrificial knife. Or stone. Or torch. And it is to sacrifice the potential to become rich in order to ensure true equality.

Receive History

Sacred texts, without readers, are mere artifacts. While so evident as to be trite, this truth lies behind the area of biblical studies called reception history. Perhaps from the earliest days that some books were considered holy, those who studied them wondered primarily what the original author meant. That was, after all, why the texts were preserved as special—they possessed a quality that other writings lacked. Over the centuries this perspective gained nuance and sophistication. (Despite what some secularists say, the study of the Bible can be quite scientific. Some of it is so technical that even specialists have a difficult time following it.) Until last century, however, one aspect remained unchallenged. The goal was to reach what the original author meant. The enterprise of exegesis is geared toward that end. Strip away the reader to get to the writer.

thumb_IMG_2069_1024Meanwhile sacred texts, such as the Bible, continue to develop their own lives in culture. While today’s facile use of the Bible in politics may seem to be something new, the use of Scripture in government is as old as this nation. It easily goes back to European explorations of text, and perhaps even to Asian exegesis before then. Even though the founders of the United States were unquestionably Deists, for the most part, they also were biblically literate. Even the Enlightenment recognized that the Bible held a privileged place in western civilization. Perhaps it was not the only sacred text, but it was a sacred text to many thousands, or millions, or people. Such a pedigree is wasted only with great loss to all. Enter reception history.

In the days of ecclesiastical hegemony, the church, however defined, had the right to interpret Scripture. With the growth of literacy and education the possibility of understanding the Bible spread to any who could read, or had ears to hear. We have only to glance around to see the ramifications of that today. While students may not know who Moses was in the Bible, they can tell you Christian Bale played him in a recent blockbuster. They may not know that Noah was 600 years old when the flood came, but they can tell you he was a troubled, if not somewhat psychotic, devotee of God. At least in popular culture. And that is merely the thinnest veneer of the surface. The idea of sacred texts remains embedded in our worldview. It would seem that if we want to understand ourselves, reception history will unearth vital clues.

News Work

Bible_0001I’m confused. (Well, no surprises there.) I just read the cover story in last week’s Newsweek, “The Bible: So Misunderstood it’s a Sin,” by Kurt Eichenwald. No, the story didn’t confuse me. Nor did the fact that the Bible appeared on the cover of a major news weekly. What confused me is that the article says nothing new. Well, no doubt it will be new to many readers. The fact is, however, that anyone with a serious degree in biblical studies (and believe it or not, there are so many of them that jobs can’t be found for them all) knows all of this stuff already. What’s more, they have known it for decades. Scholars tend to write for other scholars. Some see the best-selling trade titles by publishers like Harper Collins making the New York Times bestseller list and imagine that their monograph on the obscure meaning of an obscure word in an obscure verse of a book that most people don’t even know is in the Bible will do the same. It won’t. Most academic monographs sell in the hundreds (not thousands or millions) and at the low end of the centuries mark at that. They are bought by libraries and read by peers only. In them we argue (for yes, I have written such books) important points that can only be understood by those with specialist training, and think we’ve changed the world. Newsweek gives the lie to that.

Long ago it became clear that scholars were failing to connect with the average person. That is the person who turns on the television and hears and sees the people Eichenwald shows to be impostors, and believes them. They are, after all, on television. The biblical scholars who know that these obvious fallacies are simple-minded are too busy trying to get tenure in a market—yes, a market—that finds education an annoying necessity. We won’t hire anyone without a college degree any more, and so we need universities. Universities, however, won’t hire without signs of erudition, including books that most people on the search committee can’t understand because they specialize in something different. Oh, and those studies must be published. Whether they are read or not is merely, well, academic.

Meanwhile the public doesn’t know that biblical scholars have long ceased debating the age of the world, the flood, the resurrection, or the end of the world. Scholars have bigger concerns on their minds: how am I going to teach more courses and still produce those learned disquisitions that a dozen of my closest colleagues will read and rebut? And serve on all those committees? And participate in the branding of the university, because, we all know that people will buy a trusted brand? Meanwhile on center stage are politicians who know nothing about the Bible beyond the fact that it brings down votes, big time, and they are telling us what they think it should say. Chances are most scholars of the Bible won’t read Newsweek to find the answers. I didn’t even know about it until a friend mentioned it on Facebook. Like most people I’m just too busy to notice. And a little confused.