The Truth Lies

I recently saw a Trump supporter claiming, unsurprisingly, that everyone’s lying except Trump.  Of course, I could be lying.  According to the Washington Post, Trump has made over 13,000 lying or deceitful statements since being in office.  For those who did their homework before he became the great protector of the unborn (ah, there’s one born every minute!) he was known as a crooked businessman to begin with.  With well over a thousand lawsuits against him even before being elected, we have no choice but to believe the entire legal system is lying, as well as anyone who’s had business dealings with him.  I’m just so glad that we have such a moral, upstanding paragon of Christ-like behavior in the Oval Office.  Never mind that all those witnesses in the impeachment case were speaking under oath—they all lie, but Trump.  Hey Donald, is that your real hair?

Ironically, some of the people making such claims hold the belief that divorce is not excused in the gospels (see Matthew 5:32, but Jesus could’ve been lying here—he’s not Donald Trump, after all).  It’s a matter of public record that Trump is twice divorced.  It’s a matter of sworn legal testimony that he paid hush-money to cover up affairs while married.  Well, that is if we believe this lying world rather than the one, solid, shining bastion of truth in the White House.  Someone once said (but he may have been lying) that it is easier for a camel to pass through an eye of a needle that for a rich man to get into heaven.  Just sayin’.

I have said before that all politicians lie.  It comes with the territory and only the most naive among us don’t accept that fact.  There is a difference, however, between the occasional mistruth and a lifetime, documented record of indiscriminate lying.  If it weren’t for the fact that all facts are lies (except those Trump makes up) we would see that the phenomenon of pathological lying is well known.  The presidency of the United States has never before tolerated a pathological liar.  But then again, they never had an incumbent more Christian than Jesus himself.  Now I think I remember who made that crack about rich guys.  He also said something about having no place to lay his head.  If he’d been born rich, though, you can bet the gospel message would’ve been very different.  Too bad the Bible lies.  If it didn’t such musings as this would hardly be necessary.  I could be lying, of course.  It is, after all, the new truth.

New Religion

Republicanism, it seems to me, has become its own religion.  It started off when the GOP married evangelical Christianity, but the offspring of that unholy union has become a religion all on its own.  It certainly doesn’t adhere to classical Republican principles (tariffs?  Really?).  Nor does it adhere to Evangelical standards (turn the other cheek?  Love thy neighbor as thyself?).  Like most blendings, this new religion has some elements of each parent and it has no lack of fanatic supporters.  The traditional Evangelical, for example, considered the Devil “the father of lies”—one of his biblical titles.  The Republican, however, considers pathological lying to be signs of messiahood.  There’s a tiny disjunction here, but it proves that what we’ve got is the birth of a new religion.

Books and articles have begun to appear on how Evangelicalism has changed.  I don’t believe it’s so much a matter of Evangelicalism evolving as it is Republicanism fulfilling the need for intolerant religion.  In every culture there are those who want to go back to the day of Moses and golden calves and stoning those you hate.  It’s a little more difficult these days, what with secular laws that protect the rights of others, but the GOP has found a way.  My heart goes out to old fashioned Republicans, it really does.  Fiscal conservatives have found themselves in church with a bunch of people with whom they agree on very little.  They have no choice, for their political party has been sanctified.  And the only thing worse than an Evangelical is a bleeding-heart liberal.  Next thing you know the Democrats will start quoting the Bible at you.

The lying thing really takes some wrapping my head around, though.  I’ve always said nobody believes in a religion they know to be false.  This new development challenges that, if it doesn’t challenge the very idea of religion itself.  Republicanism is a religion based solidly on bearing false witness.  Self-aware of it, even.  You can’t tell me that these educated white men don’t know a criminal activity when they see one.  That they can’t read, and reason, and trust their intellect (although it takes the back seat to their overwrought emotions).  Sound like a religion to you?  It sure does to me.  It’s been coming a long time, but it took the last three years (the tradition length of Jesus’ ministry, it’s often said) for this to dawn on me.  The religion of the lying messiah.  I’ve got to wonder what kind of future it’s got.  I smell the fires rekindling in the burnt over district and wonder who’s for dinner.

Label Maker

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 how  they 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 outlook  evolved 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.

Just As I Was

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.

Fool’s Paradise

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

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

Image credit: Pamela Coleman Smith, Wikimedia Commons

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

Sticky Labels

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.

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.

Trump

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.

Foundation and Empire

Foundation_gnomeIn a childhood full of science fiction I’m sure I read much material that was too sophisticated for me. After all, I grew up in a working-class family where politics amounted to lambasting the incumbent because things still weren’t getting any better. Even the conservative super-hero Ronald Reagan was mostly remembered for the government-issue cheese we received for free. We called it “Reagan Cheese.” In that setting much of Isaac Asimov’s Foundation trilogy must have been far beyond me. Still, I dutifully plowed through all three volumes as any budding science-fiction nerd was expected to. It was a required piece of the curriculum along with Frank Herbert’s Dune. Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land would have to wait until adulthood. I remember rooting for the cosmic empire—the symbol of law and order—unaware that similar systems would eventually find me as a fifty-something, educated man unemployable for years at a time. Science fiction doesn’t bestow the ability to see the future.

Then I read a recent issue of Books and Culture, the bi-monthly publication review by Christian Century. An article by Philip Jenkins, reviewing a book I’ve not read, started off with a reference to Asimov’s trilogy. Suddenly I found myself transported hundreds of miles and two-score years from Midtown Manhattan to rural western Pennsylvania in barely adequate housing, holding Foundation and Empire close to my face. Jenkins, a noted historian of religion, was pointing out that Asimov often drew from Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire and based his character of the Mule—those of you who’ve read the trilogy remember him, I’m sure—on Mohammed. The thought had never occurred to me that the science-oriented mind of Asimov would ever delve into religion for inspiration. Still, with the little I recall of the story, it does seem to add up.

In fact, much of science fiction is deeply dependent on religion. Science fiction dares to dream of the future, and no matter how technical that future becomes, the religious are still there. Last century bold claims were made that we’d be living in the twilight years of religion by now. Mid-term elections fueled by religious fervor prove the pundits wrong yet again. Organized religion, fledgling or fully adult, is a political animal. Religion and politics are both about how we interact with one another as a society. It may seem that the concepts behind religious thought are unsubstantiated myths that transcend the mechanistic world in which we live. Even so, they continue to drive revolutions large and small. And somewhere in the attic I still have my copy of the Foundation trilogy ready to be seen by grown-up eyes. Or better yet, through the credulous eyes of a child.

Beyond Redemption?

NonbelieverNation The Roman emperor Gaius, it is said, was insane. He perpetrated such antics as declaring war on the North Sea, making his horse a senator, and appearing in public dressed as various gods. Better known as Caligula, Gaius is often presented as evidence of the decadence that would eventually lead to the fall of the Roman Empire. Civilization, we’re told, has progressed enormously since then. We put people on the moon, and we carry in our pockets technology that appears, to mere mortals, as if it’s magic. We have elected an African-American to the White House and men have magnanimously granted females the right to vote. Oh how far we’ve come! And yet, in the midst of our self-congratulation, we have not one, but a plethora of high-ranking politicians in all three branches of the government who believe the world is only 6000 years old. They firmly believe Jesus will return on a white horse (presumably to be made a senator) any day now. And there will be a massive battle of good (us, or at least some of us) versus evil (those not evangelical in orientation) that will lead to the end of the world. And they are easily elected. Is that a knowing smile I see on Gaius’ face?

David Niose, president of the Secular Coalition for America, has written an important book entitled Nonbeliever Nation: The Rise of Secular Americans. Before you run for your shotguns, be assured that Niose is—like most secularists—not trying to do away with religion. Secularity is all about the founding principles of this country: freedom of conscience, the right to believe what we will. Or won’t. Up until the 1950’s the secular aspect of this country was taken more or less for granted. Tellingly, Niose opens his book by looking at the presidential elections of 1912 in which not one of the four candidates had a problem with evolution and even the most religious of them was very much a moderate. A century later and we have rampant Fundamentalists well funded and ready to push other nations toward initiating Armageddon. “Well, they started it!” And still, secular Americans are consistently portrayed as insidious snakes in the garden, trying to destroy everything.

It is difficult to read Nonbeliever Nation and not feel embarrassed as we see the promise of an advanced nation winding back its clock to the point that the educated are presented as ignorant at best—or more likely, evil. Where churches and corporations are increasingly difficult to tell apart, and where basic civil liberties for women and gays are still considered somewhat suspect, as if they hadn’t cleared the desk of the Big Man upstairs. Yes, he does have a beard and a son. And yet, despite the message of that putative son—known as a pacifist with radical ideas about social equality—the faithful bar the way for the oppressed while building the most massive arsenal in the world’s history. Rome, they say, was not built in a day. It didn’t even fall until 476, but already in the first century, large cracks had begun to appear. The difference is that America is far more religious. Does that give us any better chances, or worse? Read David Niose and decide. And, since global warming is real, the North Sea will eventually win in the end.