Did you ever have one of those label makers? The kind with a rotating wheel that embossed a plastic ribbon with letters that you could stick to things? Labeling is so easy! I often feel constrained, however, by the chosen labels of extremist groups.Not all evangelicals are power-hungry or enemies of human welfare.This is perhaps one of the keys to the success of extremists.Camouflage has long been recognized by evolution as a most effective tactic.I have many evangelical friends who do not protest cartoons, or ride around in Trump-laden vehicles, polluting the environment like there’s no tomorrow.The problem is what to call them since the more radical wing has usurped their nomenclature.I often think of this because I eschew labels in general, but people in a collective can do quite a bit more damage than a single disgruntled individual.Perhaps “disgruntled” should be part of their name?
Religions generally begin as efforts to help make the world a better place.The historian of religions sees, however, that over time many believers begin seeing the peripherals as the central tenets of the faith.Since I’m familiar with evangelicalism, let me use that as an example.As a form of Christianity, evangelicalism began with the Reformation.Pietist groups, freed from Catholicism’s idea of communal salvation, began to worry about their individual souls and howthey might be saved.Their belief structure eventually came to include the necessity of converting others because, if you read the Bible a certain way, that’s a requirement.Over time this outlookevolved into the idea that only one group (one’s own) has truly understood the Christian message.Once numbers grow numerous, it becomes like the medieval Catholic Church—large enough to take political power.Somewhere along the line the central message of helping make the world a better place morphs into making the world evangelical only.Or whatever label we feel constrained to use.
labels are problematic
I’m not picking on the evangelicals here—this could apply to any extremists.And it certainly doesn’t apply to all evangelicals.Religion has been part of human culture from the very beginning.A good case can be made that it is one of the basic components of consciousness itself.A person has to learn how to become unreligious.We are also political animals.Who doesn’t want things their own way?We can’t all win, however, and some religions have difficulty separating, say, a savior willing to die for others and the insistence on one’s own way no matter what others want.Like most aspects of life this is a balancing act.I grew up evangelical.I have friends who are evangelical.I don’t want to insult anybody, but what can you do when you feel disgruntled by the degradation of religion into an excuse for hate?I lost my label maker long ago and I no longer know what to call things anyway.
It was kind of a game. A game to teach us about important people, living or dead. The fact that we were playing it in high school history class, taught by one of my favorite teachers, made it even better. Everyone wrote a name on an index card—a person in the news or somebody from American history in the past. A student sat facing the class while the teacher selected a card and held it over the student’s head, so we could all read who it was, all except the chosen one. Then s/he would ask questions to guess whose name was written. I remember very well when the teacher picked up my card and read it. He said “that’s really a good choice!” The name led to a bit of joshing. “Is he alive or dead?” the student asked. “How can you tell?” joked our teacher. It was the one name the selected student couldn’t pin down, no matter how many questions she asked.
It’s fair to say that Billy Graham had a profound influence in my life. As a curious—and very frightened—child, whenever his crusades were on television I would watch, transfixed. I responded to his altar calls at home. Multiple times. My emotions were overwrought and I’d awake the next day feeling redeemed, for a while. I had no real mentors in my Fundamentalism. Ministers preached, but they didn’t explain things. Not to children (what was Sunday School for, after all?). All I knew was that when the rhetoric reached Hell, and the possibility I would die that very night, repentance seemed like the only logical option. The reality of the choice—a black and white one, no less—could not be denied. Either you were or you weren’t.
Source: Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Yale University via Wikimedia Commons
As my point of view eventually shifted around to that of my high school teacher—I was in college at the time—I began to realize that Graham’s version of Christianity wasn’t as monolithic as it claimed to be. Once you experience other people’s experience of religion, if you’re willing to listen to them, it’s pretty hard to hold up the blackness and whiteness of any one perspective. Over the years Graham tainted his pristine image in my eyes by his political choices. His son now stands as one of Trump’s biggest supporters. Now that Billy Graham has gone to his reward, I do hope that the Almighty doesn’t hold his mistakes against him. He had no way of knowing that his sermons were terrorizing a little boy in western Pennsylvania into a career track that would never pan out. Largely because other followers of Graham’s so decided. It’s kind of like a game.
What with all the Bible-trumping going on these days among the desiccated religions right, I thought it might be helpful to turn back to the Good Book itself. Since we have a self-proclaimed stable genius in house there should be nothing to be concerned about. What, me worry? Right, Alfred? One part of the Bible frequently cited by fundies and others who want to appear chic is the “Wisdom literature.” Although the category itself has come under scrutiny these days it’s still safe to say that Job, Proverbs, and Ecclesiastes have quite a bit in common with each other. Proverbs is a repository of pithy aphorisms. Indeed, it can sound downright modern in many respects (but hopelessly patriarchal and chauvinistic in others, unfortunately). One of the things Proverbs does is condemn fools. The sages of antiquity had no time for stupidity. Remember, we’ve got a stable genius—don’t worry.
Like Laplanders and their many words for “snow,” the book of Proverbs uses several terms for fools. There is, for instance, the innocent fool. This is the person who simply doesn’t know any better. Often it’s because of inexperience. This kind of fool can learn from failures and may go on to better things. Far more insidious is the willful fool. This is the person proud of his or her ignorance. Proverbs goes beyond calling such a thing unfortunate—this kind of foolishness is actually a sin. Not only is the arrogant fool culpable, they will be judged by God for their love of stupidity. As a nuclear super-power it’s a good thing we have a stable genius with the access codes. Otherwise those who thump the Bible for Trump might have a bona fide sin on their hands.
The only kind of fool that’s tolerable in the world of Proverbs is the one that’s able and willing to learn. This means, in the first instance, being humble. Refusing to admit mistakes, forever posturing and preening, this is a certain recipe for incurring divine wrath in the biblical taxonomy of fools. According to biblical wisdom literature, such people get what they deserve. The modern evangelical often has little time for such books. Aside from a misogynistic slur or two, there’s nothing worth quoting from Proverbs that you can’t find in Benjamin Franklin or even in ancient Egyptian records. When you stop to think, however, that the Bible’s said to be inerrant, you’ve must take Proverbs and what it says about fools into account. But then again, what Fundamentalist ever really reads the Bible?
Who gets to decide on their own label? We all generally know how we’d like people to think of us, but labels are limiting and divisive. An article by Tom Gjelten on NPR describes why “2017 Has Been A Rough Year For Evangelicals.” The label “Evangelical” is so protean that most people outside the specialist camp really have no idea what it means. A colleague of mine at Nashotah House used to defensively declare himself an Evangelical while holding somewhat progressive social views. I know Evangelicals who find the whole Trump charade distasteful and, quite frankly, wrong. They are, however, pasted with a label that has passed its expiration date. This label doesn’t come off easily.
The real issue is not Evangelicalism, but politics. In the version of Evangelicalism in which I was raised was non-weaponized. Yes, we believed that others should convert to “true Christianity” but whether they did so or not was their decision. In college, fellow Evangelicals in a very conservative setting declared that legislative morality was no morality at all. This was in the Reagan Era, when the GOP “discovered” the huge “bloc” of untapped voters—the Evangelicals. They discovered that this particular bloc could be rather easily swayed from voting in its own best interests, socially and financially, but emphasizing certain hot button issues. It was a political game that many Evangelicals simply didn’t recognize. You love Jesus, you vote Republican. Now these Jesus lovers must love Trump.
This discord is what Gjelten is addressing. Some Evangelicals are discussing changing their label. This can happen, of course, over time. The Moral Majority became the Religious Right became the Christian Right. Powered by televangelists when television was king, they now have to try to control the internet so the mediating influence of secular thought can be dammed. Among the casualties along the way is Jesus. The modern Evangelical movement no longer adheres to the teachings of the carpenter from Nazareth. The issues on which he spoke plainly and repeatedly have been relabeled as “liberal” and therefore evil. If you can keep the Jesus brand, eviscerated of its core beliefs, you can gather a bloc of dupes who’ll flush their own healthcare and financial wellbeing simply because sheep will follow any shepherd. Ironically, the Bible itself warns of the dangers of following false shepherds. None of that matters anymore. And those who joined the group because of that Bible wonder now who they really are.
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.
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.
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.
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.