White Rabbit

There are books that make you feel as if everything you know is uncertain.  D. W. Pasulka’s American Cosmic is such a book.  Its subtitle, UFOs, Religion, Technology, only pauses at the brink of the rabbit hole down which this study will take you.  Over the years I admit to having been jealous of colleagues who’ve been able to make an academic career stick.  The credentials of a university post open doors for you, even if you’re a professor of religion.  Pasulka has opened some doors here that I suspect many would prefer to have kept closed.  This is a compelling book, threading together many themes tied to religious studies.  There are things we might see, if only we’ll open our eyes.

Although immediately and automatically subjected to the ridicule response, UFOs are a fascinating subject.  This book isn’t about UFO religions—of which there are many—but rather it connects this phenomenon to the study of religion itself.  In Pasulka’s related field of Catholic studies, there are those anomalous accounts of saints who did the impossible.  Like UFOs, they are subjected to the ridicule response, making serious discussion of them difficult.  Might the two be related?  As you feel yourself spinning deeper and deeper down that hole, technology comes into the picture and complicates it even further.  Pasulka was a consultant on The Conjuring.  I’ve written about the movie myself, but what I hadn’t realized is how media connects with perceptions of reality.  Yes, it has a religious freight too.

Every once in a while I reflect that my decision—if it was a decision; sometimes I feel certain my field chose me—to study religion might not have been misplaced.  Perhaps all of this does tie together in some way.  American Cosmic is a mind-expanding book that assures me all those years and dollars learning about religion weren’t wasted after all.  I had a discussion recently with another doctoral holder who’s been relegated to the role of editor.  We both lamented that our training was in some sense being wasted on a job that hardly requires this level of training.  Still, if it weren’t for my day job I probably wouldn’t have known about this book, and that is perhaps a synchronicity as well.  Life is a puzzle with many thousands—millions—of pieces.  Some books are like finding a match, but others are like informing you that you’ve got the wrong box top in hand as you try to construct the puzzle with the pieces you have.  If you read this book be prepared to come close to finding the white rabbit.

Blogday

Sects and Violence in the Ancient World is nine years old today.  Not that I’m keeping count.  Really, I’m not.  WordPress sent me a notice, and they ought to know, being the virtual womb whence my thoughts gestate.  The original plan for this blog was to take my abiding interest in the religions of antiquity and give them a more public face.  My brother-in-law, Neal Stephenson, thought I should do podcasts, because, at the time I spoke incessantly about ancient deities.  I can still hold forth about Asherah at great length, but ancient Near Eastern studies is, believe it or not, an evolving field.  You need access to a university library, or at least JSTOR, and a whole sabbatical’s worth of time to keep up with it.  Even though telecommuting, I’m a nine-to-five guy now, and my research involves mostly reading books.

So Sects and Violence began to evolve.  I realized after teaching biblical studies for over a decade-and-a-half that my real interest was in how the Bible was understood in culture.  Having a doctorate from a world-class university in the origins of the Good Book certainly should add credibility.  My own journey down that pathway began because of interpretations of Scripture that were strongly cultural in origin.  I first began reading with Dick and Jane but quickly moved on to Holy Writ.  It has shaped my life since before I was ten.  It’s only natural I should be curious.

Like most tweens, I discovered sects.  Why did so many people believe so many different things?  And many of them call themselves Christians.  And the Christians I knew said the others weren’t Christian at all.  And so the conversations went, excluding others left, right, and center.  As someone who wanted answers, this fascinated me.  The Bible was the basis for many belief systems of sects everywhere.  From Haiti to Ruby Ridge.  From New York City to Easter Island.  From Tierra del Fuego to Seoul.  And not just one Bible, but many scriptures.  And these beliefs led to behavior that could be called “strange” were it not so thoroughly pervasive.  Scientists and economists say we’ve outlived the need for religion.  By far the vast majority of people in the world disagree.  I couldn’t have articulated it that way nine years ago, but since losing my teaching platform, I’ve been giving away for free what over four decades of dedicated study—with bona fides, no less!—has revealed.  Happy blogday to Sects and Violence in the Ancient World.

Ask Your Local Agnostic

A study released by the Pew Foundation reveals something many may find surprising: the best informed citizens on religion tend to be those who do not believe. There are obviously exceptions to this trend, but for those of us who teach religion it certainly rings true. Over nearly the past two decades, I have repeatedly encountered students brimming with religious zeal, but who know very little about what they’re so excited about. The emotional charge is real enough, but few Americans know in any detail what their religion actually teaches. Some of us didn’t need the Pew report to tell us this – we have known this all along.

One of the flip assumptions that must fall by the wayside here is that non-believers don’t know what they’re missing. In fact, it seems, many of them consciously reject what they are brought up believing. This also fails to surprise those who spend much time with religious studies. Religions are developed in defined culturally and chronologically bound circumstances. The longer it takes the parousia to occur, the more human knowledge mitigates against it. In a pre-scientific first century many ideas held a currency that no longer bears weight in theological commerce. Those who study it closely realize this.

As political parties gear up for midterm elections and various contenders are sending out their feelers for the highest office (secular, in this country), they know something the electorate does not. Religion, poorly understood, is perhaps the greatest motivator known to the politically ambitious. People believe – and feel it strongly – but what exactly it is they believe, they are not sure. Anyone who has read the Bible soberly, on its own terms, without ecclesiastical lenses firmly in place, walks away with more questions than answers. Religious belief relies on answers, often at the expense of knowledge. So it is that the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life has discovered something that those of us who daily live with religion had already surmised from the evidence right before our eyes.

Ch-ch-changes

Podcast 20 is here! For those who are wondering, it was a long semester with daily class prep, so I did not have the opportunity to record any podcasts. The topic of this discussion is how religions naturally must change over time. Even though religions are by nature conservative, if they last long enough they will face advances in human culture and experience. This creates a dilemma that is not often addressed. It’s evolution on a religious scale.

Grounds for Sculpture

Few people would deny that religion and art share a common heritage. Some of the earliest human art was religiously motivated (I would contend that cave paintings and Paleolithic figurines were religious objects), and much of the contemporary art scene derives its inspiration from religious motifs and constructs. Not all art is religious, however, and not all religions are friendly toward art. Nevertheless, there is a tangible connection.

This weekend was uncharacteristically warm and sunny for a New Jersey March. This led us to take our visiting family to Grounds for Sculpture, one of New Jersey’s often overlooked treasures. Built on the remains of the old State Fair grounds in Hamilton, this park houses an impressive array of outdoor sculpture that is contemplative, innovative, puckishly funny, and even a little weird. It reflects the human experience. My family and I have been there multiple times, appreciating the sculpture from new angles, discovering new pieces, and seeing it all through the eyes of others.

Taste in art is highly personal and individualistic. Just like religious sensibilities. Both art and religion seek to make the human soul accessible to others through profound expression. Several of the sculptures in this unique garden bear biblical titles or suggestions, but they may be enjoyed as secular pieces of expression as well. Here is where art is superior to religion: it does not insist on any single way of expressing the truth. Sometimes, it seems, art may actually attain what religion only aspires toward.

Monet listens attentively to a dilettante

Lost and Found

As a young lad I was fascinated by the supernatural. This may explain, but in no wise excuses, my choice of a career in religion. As I grew in years and skepticism, this interest began to feel like a security blanket in a college dormitory — an embarrassment to be jettisoned as quickly as possible. Along the way, of course, I’d given away what I thought to be the detritus of childish fantasy, including my collection of cheap, pulp fiction, tending toward the Gothic.

As I grow more ancient, and more observant, I see that sometimes the impetuousness of youth cradles a profound wisdom. Sometimes we do get it right the first time. I still haven’t figured out if that’s the case with me, but it seems to be a hypothesis worth the exploration. Part of my current search for reality is the reassessment of my childhood learning in the school of classical Gothic fiction. The books are no longer as cheap as they used to be, and when I take them out in public I hide them inside a larger, more academic book so that no one really knows what I’m reading. As a friend once observed, people think that those of us who hang out in the religion sections of Borders are immediately suspect. More so the adult toting a beaten-up paperback written for a teen readership a number of decades ago.

One of my lost memories was a juvenilized version of Rod Serling’s Stories from the Twilight Zone. I had shoveled my copy off to Goodwill along with many other shards of my childhood when I “grew up.” The memories of the angst that the very cover generated in me led to a frantic online used book hunt a few years back. Inside the stories seemed flatter than I’d recalled, but the larger ideas they generated were still worth paying attention to. Perhaps the real lesson is that childhood should not be dismissed as wasted time playing and indulging in carefree amusements. Our childhood proclivities, it now seems, preset the trajectories for our lives. So I still have a quasi-career in a religion department, and I have a copy of a book that started me asking the bigger questions.

Anybody else remember this?

Anybody else remember this?

And We All Fall Down

Welcome to the latest podcast on the Sects and Violence blog — please pardon the technical difficulties (old dog, new trick!). The topic of this podcast is the phenomenon of sects-uality, or how religions split into sects. The focus is particularly on Christianity, and especially Orthodoxy.

Enjoy!

Vampires, Mummies and the Holy Ghost

One of the many quirky things I experienced in my teaching days at Nashotah House was the fascination of theological students with the (then current) Jimmy Buffett hit “Vampires, Mummies and the Holy Ghost.” Not really a Buffett fan (I must confess, however, to being strangely touched by “Margaritaville” although I’ve never had a margarita and I’ve never been to Mexico) I was nevertheless intrigued by this juxtaposition. One student confessed to being a vampire-novelist wannabe. The vampiristic connection with the Eucharist was kindergarten, but there was a more ancient tale hidden here.

With a career crashing down around me, I found myself habitually watching horror movies — something I hadn’t done since my own seminary days. One bleary-eyed morning it struck me how our nightmare-zone creatures are religious in origin. Vampires can be traced back to ancient Sumerian mythology. Mummies? Ancient Egyptian burial practice to preserve a body for the afterlife. Ghosts, apart from finding a feared spot in most cultures, are attested in the Hebrew Bible and even earlier. They are, of course, from the supernatural realm. Werewolves are a branch of the lunar worship tree, again an ancient form of religion. Even Frankenstein’s monster toys with the account of Adam’s creation, although Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley associated him with the Greek mythological figure of Prometheus. While Godzilla (apart from his apparently theophoric name) may fall outside this scheme, most of our nightmare creatures are ancient kin of the gods.

My favorite vampire

My favorite vampire

At a professional conference last year I found and purchased a book entitled Sacred Terror: Religion and Horror on the Silver Screen, by Douglas Cowan (Baylor, 2008). Given my renewed penchant for fright flicks, I was intrigued by Cowan’s contention that religion lies at the heart of horror. Indeed, one may think of them as fellow ventricles in the anatomy of fear. Perhaps ancient religionists were on to something when one of them penned “the Lord taketh pleasure in them that fear him” (Ps 147.11). Religion may be a response to fear, or to a world that for us has become natural and upon which we wish to project a human (or divine) face.

Sects and Violence

Religion-sanctioned violence has a long (overly long) pedigree. Early myths going all the way back to the Sumerians incorporate violence on the part of the gods. Depending on one’s school of interpretation, this could be seen as “form following function” — people saw the violence inherent in nature and projected its causation onto the source of nature, namely, the gods. Ancient people did not perceive of the world in terms of natural phenomena. “Nature” behaved the way it did with will and reason, the will and reason of the gods.

The stories preserved from ancient Ugarit stand as witness to this conceptual world. In one story, Kirta by title, the eponymous king Kirta seeks a family and has his wish granted by El and Baal. Hedging his bets, he makes a vow to Asherah that he forgets to fulfill. Asherah sees to it that Kirta’s divine gift comes undone. More obvious is the tale of Aqhat, another divinely granted child. Aqhat is given a bow by the craftsman god Kothar-wa-Hasis, only to have it coveted by Anat. When he refuses to release it to the goddess he is unfortunately pecked to death in a hitchcockian demise by a swarm of buzzards with attitudes. Violence is introduced into the human realm by the gods themselves.

Today, some 3,000 years after Ugarit, we still find ourselves living with violence sanctioned by religion. Whether it is as obvious as extremist factions of a religion calling for outright attacks on others, or as subtle as self-professed righteous believers destroying a colleague’s career in the name of Jesus, religion is used as a mental crutch for striking others. While I can not walk all the way with Christopher Hitchens, I do have to acknowledge that when it comes to human-on-human violence religion is a socially accepted motivation, no matter how pure its original intentions.

Hypatia, a scholar-martyr due to religious violence

Hypatia, a scholar and martyred victim of religious violence

God is Great (not)?

As a teacher/editor with an “advanced” degree in religious studies, I was intrigued by the sudden popularity of Christopher Hitchens’ God is Not Great (Twelve Books, 2007) a couple years back. I bought it as soon it was available and read it cover-to-cover after a morning out picking strawberries.

Reading Hitchens’ analysis I found myself nodding my head quite a bit; he scores a substantial number of points on which various religions should plead “guilty.” And while I found many of his arguments persuasive, part of me still wonders if perhaps religion, that most ancient of cultural forms, has not had at least some positive impact on humankind. In the most basic sense, our civilization would not be here to critique religion if religion had not been an impetus to get our civilization to begin its motion towards today’s civilization. Black and white are not in the palette of serious religious studies.

For the scholar of religion, however, Hitchens should be required reading. Sometimes we have to stare hard into the face of the facts of what our object of study has become and wonder, with Samuel F. B. Morse, “what hath god wrought?” Religion bears the mark of Janus, and scholars of religion have to pay attention to what people are saying about it.