Dangers of Experience

I’m so used to being behind everyone else that when I turn out to be ahead of the curve it occasions genuine surprise.  That’s the way it appears when I think about the dominance of the far right in American politics.  As an editor I get to read proposals for other editors on the board.  Political scientists are trying to analyze how we’ve come to be a nation of religious far-righters when we seemed so progressive that we put a smart phone in everyone’s pocket and Alexa in everyone’s voice range.  I grew up as a far-righter when it certainly felt alienating.  Apart from people we met at church I didn’t know any others outside my family.  People we knew were, well, just different.  Back in those days we didn’t judge them.  We accepted them for who they were.

One of the aspects of my life to which I’ve grown accustomed is being ignored.  I’m not a big person, nor am I a loud one.  It isn’t unusual for me to be overlooked at work and even at religious gatherings (a field in which I’m a bona fide expert).  Nevertheless, I have a wealth of experience among the far-righters and I think it might help to understand our political climate.  I think I have a pretty good grip on what motivates this crowd.  Since I grew up (serious study will do that to you) and am no longer arrested at that stage, I’ve blended into the crowd as someone just as perplexed as everyone else.  I do, however, have an idea of what they’re after.  Our particular sect didn’t push this—we seemed more worried about our own souls staying out of Hell—but many fundamentalists wanted to take over the nation.  In fact, they have.

The fact that 45 isn’t one of them is immaterial.  Power is the thing.  Power to make others conform or suffer.  This particular faith is built on fear, not love.  It’s as if their New Testament lacks the gospel of John.  You see, I was ahead of the curve.  I was part of it before it took over congress, the White House and the supreme court.  Things move so far these days that thinkers just don’t have time to think about everything.  Work days are long and covid still complicates everything.  Who has the time to seek out those who grew out of the very source that now endangers our democracy?  I think I prefer running a little behind, don’t you, Cassie?

Doubting Normal

The problem with being mainstream is that you have a hard time impressing anybody. “Mainstream church does something normal” is hardly an eye-catching headline. So when mainstream Christianity’s in the media it must be abnormal. According to a recent Washington Post story, mainstream leaders are protesting Christianity leaving Jesus behind. To be fair, that’s an Evangelical speciality, but still. Without naming the elephant named Trump in the room, these mainstream leaders are doing what every Christian in the nation should be doing, which is objecting to the abuse of their brand. The Religious Right has been driving this car and from all indications RR is drunk. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, once the darling of Evangelicals, once wrote that it is a Christian’s duty to wrench the wheel from the hands of fascists. Now they call shotgun and select the tunes.

I could be getting this wrong. As the child of an alcoholic, I don’t know what’s normal. My wife must tire of hearing the question from me, “Is this normal?” I just don’t know. One thing I do know is that being unable to know what to expect has prepared me well for Trump’s destruction of America. I can’t tell if it’s normal or not, so good thing we have the two-faced Evangelicals to tell us it is. Those who watch religion might say it’s odd to have mainstream Christians on the moral high ground over their more self-righteous kin, but these seem to be strange times. Religion, like anything that can be used, can also be abused.

Even our Orthodox siblings know the score. The Orthodox Church basically went underground in Russia, which is, after all, a Christian nation. Stalin, at least, was honest. He couldn’t stand that mamby-pamby opiate of the masses. He had the fortitude to call himself an atheist. 45, on the other hand, calls himself whatever it takes to make himself look good. What? Christians are fashionable this season? Okay, I’m one of those. Even people who should know better (just because your daddy was an Evangelist doesn’t make you holy—too many Evangelists were caught with prostitutes to make that claim) have delighted to invite a lion into the sheepfold. I don’t know about you, but I’d be edging toward the fence just about now. Something doesn’t smell right in here. But then again, don’t take my word for it. The situation looks normal to me.

Ask an Evangelical

News stories this year have plowed up a frequently repeated question: what’s an Evangelical? This was the subtext to a Washington Post story that declared “Half of evangelicals support Israel because they believe it is important for fulfilling end-times prophecy,” as if it’s news. The media’s a little shy, I get it. Those of us who grew up Evangelical could have told them that at least 40 years ago. As a child I knew that Israel had to be fully restored for Jesus to return. Politics, we thought, were holding God hostage. You see, if the Bible says something, and it’s infallible, then even the Almighty has to obey it. And some parts seem to indicate that Israel has to be restored—interpreted a certain way—before Jesus gets his invitation back.

This Evangelical support isn’t because they love the Jews. No, no. Let’s not get personal about this. It’s because the second coming isn’t coming until the pieces are laid out in order. The Bible’s like a crystal ball, only it’s holy. It can predict the future with great precision. You can be sure someone like Trump is in there someplace, maybe in the passage where an ass speaks. In the 1970s it was Nixon. The wonderful thing about prophecy is that it’s made with interchangeable parts. As Millenniarians know, if you get your year wrong never apologize. Simply recalculate and keep preaching as if nothing happened. The Almighty is a forgiving God. At least to those He likes.

Intellectuals seem to think Evangelicalism is contagious. Well, to be fair, historically it has been. That was the whole point of camp meetings. Most Evangelicals aren’t too shy to tell you what they believe. In fact, their reading of the Bible sort of insists that they do. If you’re too bashful, many of those in the academy (or even formerly so) started out in their ranks. Rare is the biblical scholar who decided on that field of study purely based on intellectual curiosity. There was likely a method to their madness. Yes, of course Evangelicals support any politician who moves the embassy to Jerusalem. Tis a consummation devoutly to be wished. The divine heels have been dragging for a couple of millennia now, so it’s time to get this show on the road. All you have to do is ask an Evangelical. They’re not hard to find; in fact, they seem to be everywhere these days.

Call It What You Will

I didn’t even know the House of Representatives had a chaplain. Then Paul Ryan fired him. I wondered once again if evangelicals were interested in religion at all. We all have labels we’d like to claim but lack of legitimacy prevents us from keeping them. My secret wannabe title is rock star, but given that I can’t sing and can’t play any instruments, I have trouble retaining it. Evangelicals, however, have no challengers. They are so flexible they’d make Proteus blush. Such theological promiscuity, traditional religion teaches, will have its comeuppance. If 45 has accomplished nothing else, he’s forced the religious right to show its true, secular colors. Of all the great ironies of the situation none is greater than the fact that “nones” of whatever description hold up the weightier matters of morality better than those most vocal about their faith. Evangelicals, however, control the narrative and claim to do so with God’s own authority. They have few challengers.

Source: Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Yale University via Wikimedia Commons

Then, mere days latter, Rev. Patrick J. Conroy was reinstated by the whiplash GOP. Did somebody warn the religious right that “religious” was part of their name? “Hypocrisy” comes from a Greek root meaning to play a theatrical part. As my stepfather used to tell us, “do as I say, not as I do.” He was a secular man, so his hypocrisy could be overlooked. Noble, even, at times. When those who stake their entire identity on WWJD promote, vocally and enthusiastically, an unrepentant candidate for sinner of the year, you’ve got to wonder if even hypocrisy has lost its punch. How can you reason with people who refuse to reason? We used to lock them away in asylums. Now we throw them into the swamp.

Double standards are the new normal, I guess. Nobody really paid any heed when the fall of the towering televangelists showed, decades ago, that the idol they proclaimed as true religion was rotten to the core. Oh, they made the headlines for a while, but their tumble did nothing to dissuade their true followers. Evangelicals control their own narrative. For many decades now higher education and the media have pretty much ignored religion as a force for social change. Once upon a time Evangelicalism meant change based on ideals that more or less fit the recorded words of the carpenter from Nazareth. Now that its inspiration is the ninth circle below, those who have access to the funds of higher education prefer to put their money elsewhere. Why study something that threatens democracy on a daily basis? Why bother trying to understand Evangelicals? Call it what you will—there’s no way to object to anyone claiming whatever name they want. I should know; I’m a rock star, after all.

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.

Scaping By

Failure is a part of life. We don’t like stories about failure, however, unless the protagonist goes out with a memorable bang. So it is that when we fail we start looking for a scapegoat. Now it’s a little too early to tell if Ken Ham’s Ark Encounter can be considered a failure. According to a story on Friendly Atheist, “Ken Ham is Now Blaming Atheists for the Economic Failures of Ark Encounter,” the ark may be loaded with dinosaurs, but not money. People need their myths, yes, but myths that take themselves too seriously often fail to convince. Atheists, even the friendly variety, have always been convenient scapegoats. I wonder how many scapegoat species are in the Ark Encounter.

I don’t know about you, but I’m curious about the Ark Encounter. I don’t want to go because I don’t want them to have any of my money. As I’ve told academic friends who visit—I just can’t see contributing to their cause. Although the Right seems to implode when it reaches power (there are far too many selfish people in the Party, and selfishness leads to easy splintering) one thing that it has is money. Think about it, the extremely wealthy are on their side. If I was given a free pass I might find it worth my while to wend my way back down to Kentucky. Who doesn’t like a spectacle? And I would like to see how they represent scapegoats in their dioramas. Besides, with sea levels rising from “fictional” global warming it might not be a bad idea to get a few tips on how to build an ark, no matter what you believe.

You only fail when you fail to try. That was a phrase a friend used to repeat to me before disappearing from my life. A friend from college once told me that I had to stop admitting my failures if I wanted to move ahead in life. There is a danger in easy appearances of success, however. Failure can be a very noble teacher. There are mornings when I’m walking across Manhattan, passing the homeless in their blankets on the street, and I realize that I would not be where I am were it not for failures. I could hide them, but if I haven’t learned from them they’ll only burst out of the closet again when it gets too full. Is Ken Ham’s Ark Encounter a failure? It’s far too early to tell. One thing we know for sure, however, is that scapegoats will never be an endangered species even if there’s a world-wide flood.

James Tissot,Agnus-Dei: The Scapegoat (Brooklyn Museum via Wikimedia Commons)

Good Newsists

In the interest of avoiding conflict thereof, I cannot yet give a review of Randall Balmer’s Evangelicalism in America. Since I’m writing a review of it for Reading Religion, I’ll use it as a springboard into a topic that should concern all who believe in religious freedom. One of the resounding themes of Balmer’s treatment is that Evangelicalism, after it wedded to the Religious Right, lost its soul. Those are my words, not his, but the sentiment’s about right. For anyone who wasn’t politically aware in the 1980s, it may seem a surprise that religion didn’t enter into politics before that decade. With the exception of the fear of the Catholic in the case of John F. Kennedy, religion wasn’t used as a political wedge until the presidency of Jimmy Carter. The Religious Right, unhappy with the born again Southern Baptist in the White House, moved to solidify the Evangelical bloc.

Evangelicals had been an underground movement for half a century. Many had no idea what being “born again” meant when Carter first claimed the sobriquet. Balmer points out that it was the threat of the withdrawal of tax-exempt status to discriminating Christian schools that led to political action. Bob Jones University, fearful of racial intermarriage, didn’t admit African American students. Leaders of the Religious Right saw the loss of tax-exempt status as a move against their sacred segregated culture and a push that required a shove. Coopting the abortion issue (historically Evangelicals had supported women’s rights, including the right to abortion in many cases), they nailed together a platform for political activism which put women “back in their place,” kept racial “purity,” and romanced a total aberration in Christianity—the “prosperity gospel.” All of this is well documented. And well hidden.

Looking at Evangelical politics today, abortion—the control of women—has become THE issue. It’s hard to believe, as Balmer amply illustrates, that Evangelicalism used to be allied with the Social Gospel. It was a religious view with a conscience and it supported issues that are now polarized as “liberal” and leftist. This shift came about gradually, but not accidentally. There were political players—Balmer names names—who had one goal in mind, and that goal wasn’t Jesus or what he’d do. It was the sweet prize of political power. Evangelicals, you see, are born followers. A leader with a strong voice can lead them just about anywhere. Many Evangelicals today would deny their more liberal history, but it is right there for anyone who’s willing to learn something about who they once were.

True to Nature

A friend recently sent me an article on Jack London from smithsonian.com. As the article by Kenneth Brandt makes clear, London is an author for our times. Someone who might truly be called a populist, London, like many of us born in the working class, had an epiphany. Perhaps his came earlier than many, but at the age of 18, while working laboring jobs, he noted that he “was scared into thinking.” He decided, before the idea of sending all kids to college had caught on, that he should acquire an education. In the words quoted by Brandt, he wanted to become a “brain merchant.” Certainly London’s works need no introduction from a guy like me. Robust and masculine, his stories are those of man pitted against a nature that is often out to crush, freeze, or starve him. Today we need to loosen up those pronouns a bit. Women, who’ve arguably had it tougher than men for all of biological history, have had to struggle for survival too. In the current political climate we all need to remind those who substitute testosterone for brains that we all share human rights.

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The Religious Right, or “alt-right” as they seem to prefer these days, wasn’t always a fetus farm. It has been historically documented that it was Francis Schaeffer, erstwhile hippie and free thinker, who when he got abortion stuck in his craw, decided that men had to protect the unborn from women. He seemed to have forgotten whose gonads planted that seed in the first place. Prior to Schaeffer Christian saints tried to avoid sex all together. Among the original “abstinence only” crowd, some of the more zealous put their money where their testicles were and castrated themselves. Ah, men were real men in those days. Today masculinity means ganging up on women and grabbing them by the Call of the Wild, apparently.

Like London, I think we all need to be scared into thinking. We’ve let a wildly distorted view of humanity—one-sided and with dangling evidence of gender loyalty—to steal the White House from the woman who thoroughly won it from the vox populi. Where is Buck when we need him? London knew, as evolution repeatedly teaches, in Brandt’s words, “abusive alpha males never win out in the end.” I say that “swing states” should look carefully at that hanging chad. In the meantime, while the fat cats bicker and argue over the best way to suppress females to make themselves look bigger, I think we should all read again about what happens when Spitz meets Buck. If you haven’t read The Call of the Wild before, it’s time to do so now.

Love, American Style

If you’re going to thump the Bible, at least try to read it once in a while! Donald Trump, showing his true colors yet again, degrades women in the crudest terms imaginable and the religious right (what used to be called the Moral Majority) quickly falls in line. Videos swiftly emerged with conservative commentator Sean Hannity saying “King David had 500 concubines, for crying out loud.” Did he? David, I mean. Try to count that high and you’ll run out of fingers. But according to the Bible amorous King David stopped well short of 500. In fact, his affair with Bathsheba almost ruined him politically. And this was in the day when polygamy was supported by the law. I think Mr. Hannity was groping for the story of King Solomon, David’s frisky son. Solomon, famed for his 700 wives and 300 concubines, was underestimated by Hannity by half. And maybe if he’d read to the end of the chapter (come on, it’s only 43 verses) he might’ve stopped to think that the comparison did his candidate no favors.

Back in biblical times things were different. Even a monogamous man might have several wives since childbirth claimed a disproportionate number of young women’s lives. The average fella only lived to be about 40 himself. Lust existed, to be sure, but marriage was a practical affair. For the average citizen, you needed children to help out around the farm where you grew your own food. No golden arches in those days. Attitudes towards women back then were just plain wrong, in any case. The marriages of Solomon were political affairs, not prurient in origin. There are those with Trump signs in their yards that would like to see us return to such days, although they have no idea what such days were like. The consensus is that David had about 8 wives, but who’s counting?

Photo credit: Jörg Bittner Unna, Wikimedia Commons

Photo credit: Jörg Bittner Unna, Wikimedia Commons

Women are more than playthings for men. How have we ever reached the point where someone born in the last century doesn’t know that, and can get to less than a month before the election with that ignorant platform? This should make any American shudder. Make America great again? Treat women as equals. Treat people of color as equals. Treat those of differing sexual orientations as equals. Honor the principles upon which this nation was founded. Don’t just grab someone by the polls. And read your Bible, Mr. Hannity. The point behind King Solomon’s 300 concubines is that he died a sinful, disgraced king in the mere shadow of David. The next time you want to quote the Bible, try reading it first.

Rainbow Disconnection

The scene can be quite dramatic. A zoom out from a dead or dying Christian martyr as the moving music swells. There’s a sense of poignant heaven in the air as a human being breathes his or her last, lapsing into the hands of an unseen, waiting father. That’s a kind of typical ending to the particular genre of a martyr movie. We’re left feeling sad but somewhat inspired that someone cared so much that they would give up their very life for their belief. I can see the scenes already building as Kim Davis goes to jail for contempt of court. Davis is the Rowan County clerk in Kentucky who refuses to issue marriage licenses to homosexual couples. Although her action violates federal law, she has her conscience for a pillow at night. All she has to do is spend a day in jail before she will become a martyr/cause célèbre for the religious right. I’m sure it’s already started.

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I don’t believe anyone should be made to go against their conscience. I also believe that if you’re an elected official being paid a tax-payer’s salary of $80,000 a year, that you should do your job. I’m sure the case isn’t so simple as all that, but as someone who’s never made anywhere near that much money, I could see myself easily stepping down if asked to do something that I just could not, in good faith, do. Most of us spend our lives compromising a bit here and there when our employment pushes us in directions we feel uncomfortable going. Nobody would consider us spineless for trying to hold onto tenuous jobs in an economy that seems to be endlessly faltering as the wealthy suck up more and more of the free cash. We do what we have to do. Go to confession at the end of the day and live to die another day. The evangelical, however, has a soft spot for martyrs.

Historians tell us that early Christians were probably not killed off as radically as the early records suggest. It seems the numbers might have been exaggerated to make a point. No doubt, many did die, and some in very gruesome ways, but they faced an unspeakable compromise—to deny the creator of the universe and burn in Hell forever. Issuing a license to a couple whose right to marry you question doesn’t seem to fall into the same category. Standing before the great golden throne your defense would easily be, “it was my job. I couldn’t quit because I needed all that money.” If there’s another viable source of income, the argument becomes spurious. I’m sure there are those in Rowan County who feel they’ve got a hero in their jail. The rest of us just get dressed and go to do the job we’re paid to do.

Founding Principles

That feeling is in the air. Autumn began to stretch its melancholy fingers into August this year. Even before the month was half over the mornings had that chill in them that sparked the trees to begin their slow process of shutting down for the winter. Not wanting to admit that it was time to send my daughter back to college, I resisted what is one of the most compelling senses of self-abnegation that can be known—fall, in all its glory. When I saw a blog post on the Salem Witch Trials, I knew I wasn’t alone. The nights are already longer, and that sunset over summer’s beach comes earlier each day. Salem has a way of bringing that home to me. Innocent people murdered for fictitious crimes. Much of the fear that led to this miscarriage of justice was, of course, inspired by religion. The colonials had a great fear of new religious movements. Although it is difficult to believe, Baptists were such a new religion at the time. Considering how Baptist sensibilities now drive much of the Religious Right, it is difficult to imagine that once upon a time, being a Baptist could lead to accusations of being a witch.

As much as the Religious Right likes to make claims to a primitivism that is completely fiction (Christianity has always been this way), we have lost touch with what it meant to be a Christian in early America. States (still colonies) had their religious preferences, some even established. If you were a Baptist you’d be most comfortable in Rhode Island. If you leaned Quaker, Pennsylvania was for you. When these disparate colonies banded together into a country, it was quickly realized that religious freedom was the only way for them to work together. The government, the state, could not determine matters of individual conscience. Until, that is, that we could declare that the views of particular individuals on birth control—as informed by their religious authorities—could legally deny their employees full health benefits. Oyer and Terminer, anyone?

Freedom is a beautiful idea. It is a concept that only works, however, if it is shared equally. When one faction claims liberty for itself while limiting it for others, we’ve fallen back into times when the Baptist at your door was more dangerous than the Devil in his Hell. And so we revise our history and make claims that America was founded as a Christian nation. Evidence can be ignored, or, failing that, revised. Nothing is written in stone. When you visit Salem, there is a quiet little park, off the beaten path. Under some weary old trees are a set of stone benches against a stone wall. On each of the benches are engraved the names of those executed for being imaginary monsters. The leaves on those trees are, I’m sure, beginning to turn. Soon they will silently fall, and only those who are made of stone will deny that autumn is upon us again.

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Great Caesar’s Cost

College has been on my mind quite a bit lately. Thinking back to my own experience, I chose a school, as a first-generation college student, based on what I knew at the time. It wasn’t much. I chose a school close to home, and safe. A place friendly to, in what I believed to be a world in open hostility to, “Christianity,” by which I meant the conservative, Evangelical variety. The school I settled on, Grove City College, was at the time a selective school. This was the early 1980s and the “Religious Right” was just beginning to appear on the political horizon. Grove City was a Presbyterian college, and the Reformed, although sometimes theologically conservative, have generally been a bit more socially progressive. I recall the admissions numbers being trotted out to the incoming class, about how elite we were (something I’ve always denied and find personally objectionable) at having been admitted to a selective, private enclave such as GCC (“God’s Country Club” as it was locally known). Many of the kids did come from monied families, but I was there on the basis of government subsidized (and unsubsidized, as if I knew the difference) loans.

When my daughter was considering colleges she had been warned about Grove City. One of her friends was contemplating it, but soon wisely cast her thoughts elsewhere. Nevertheless curious, I picked up the Princeton Review’s The Best 376 Colleges, a kind of Bible for the collegiate-bound, to see if my old alma mater rated a mention. Sure enough, Grove City was present. For those wishing to make it in the heartless world of business, it can be a good training ground. What caught my attention, however, was the acceptance rate. According to the 2012 edition, 74% of applicants were admitted. So much for selective! This figure swirled around my gray matter for some months as I started to sort out the implications.

Over the past few decades, Grove City College—which was always conservative—has allied itself closely with the posturing of Tea Party types. Herein lies a true dilemma for the educated bourgeois: how to be intellectually progressive and socially repressed at the same time. To accomplish this difficult trick, a non-negotiable bedrock is required, and since even the earth is spinning crazily on its axis the only true solidity in the universe is religion. Claiming that, despite the 14.5 billion years of this universe’s elapsed lifespan, only one thing never changes and that is a particular interpretation of Scripture, you can go ahead with your science and your arts. But most of all, with your business. Although black holes may exist, and textual criticism may indicate Scripture has its own gray areas after all, nothing counts much at the end of the day if you don’t have capital to back you up. Open admission policies can be interpreted in more than one way, depending on your point of view.

Photo by "the Enlightenment"

Photo by “the Enlightenment”

Just Plain Bible

BibleWithoutTheologyBack when I was teaching Hebrew Bible in a seminary for a living, I purchased a book entitled The Bible Without Theology by Robert A. Oden Jr. I had intended to read it as a sanity break from the over-compensatory theological glosses that even the slightest reading of the Bible had in that setting. As the years passed and the book remained unread, I came to think of it as a systematic deconstructing of theological readings of the Bible, which it is not. Instead, Oden has gathered in this useful little book several essays centered on the topic of how the theological reading of the Bible has all but drowned out any other interpretations and has secured the privileged position of the Bible not only in society, but also in academia. Naturally, many people see such privilege as a witness of undisputed truth, even though how that truth is interpreted remains an open question.

Scholars, however, have the obligation not to favor their worldview over the evidence. Oden begins by discussing how history itself is perceived differently among those of various mindsets. History is an important part of the Bible’s theological reading since many Judeo-Christian interpretations revolve around a sense of historical veracity. After illustrating how history and mythology both lay claim to the text, Oden points out that even obviously mythological episodes have been blockaded by a theological reading of the scriptures. With examples from socio-anthropological studies, he demonstrates that parts of Genesis are best understood by investigating how kinship structures work, as well as how clothing serves as a status marker rather than a hidden justification for sacrifice, or chilly nights outside Eden.

Although The Bible Without Theology wasn’t exactly what I’d come to suppose it was, it remains a proper prologue to the issue. When Oden’s book appeared in the 1980s, the Religious Right was just finding its feet, fueled by a hyper-theological reading of the Bible. Since that time, the Bible has been used as theological justification to repress everyone from women to those biologically inclined toward their own gender. Bible scholars have, in general, known this is wrong. However, theologically inclined institutions won’t pay instructors for honestly engaging the text. Bible scholars are expected to throw their expertise behind the theological outlook of their institution in a way that Oden rightly points out, no other academic discipline would accept. In reaction to the biblical abuses of the Neo-Con crowd, many Americans are wondering why this one holy book is so privileged. While it may not have all the answers, Oden’s riposte will help to explain why the Bible deserves better.

Portrait of God as a Young Man

Famed swing state Ohio is back in the news with Jesus in the front lines. It was an unlikely setting to notice such a thing. I was sitting in a conference room at work, awaiting the start of a meeting. A laptop was set up with a projector, and the homepage cast upon the screen was msn.com. There, on the wall at work was Jesus’ name.

The story has to do with a public school in Jackson City. A student group had donated a portrait of Jesus to the school in 1947, but in a multicultural world the constitution sometimes has to take on the Prince of Peace.

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While the legal issues are thorny, I have an even more probing question to ask. What makes a portrait a religious object? There is a fair bit of dispute about the historical Jesus—who he really was, where he was from. Despite the sangfroid of the New Atheists, there is little reason to doubt that there was a historical person Jesus. If that is the case, what makes his picture any different than that of Woodrow Wilson or Ronald Reagan? Or Churchill, with his religious-sounding name? One could argue that we don’t know what Jesus looked like—and this is true—but neither could we really identify many historical figures before the advent of photography.

The making of a picture into a religious object comes down to intent. Intent on the part of those who hung it, and on the part of those who view it. The 1940s were a different era. The Second World War was just ended, America was proudly Christian after fighting for the cause of truth, justice, and, well, the American way. Could the school group have donated Jesus in that era as the portrait of a great man? Without supernatural implications? I suspect we all know the answer to that.

Fast forward a few decades. The world has changed drastically. We are multicultural. The internet entertains us with such stories as this. If not for the internet, and a casually chosen homepage, I would never have even heard of Jackson City, Ohio. Is it possible that we could look at a picture of Jesus in our day without religious adoration? Quite possibly. But the furor raised by the religious right every time a perceived slight stirs up the dust would seem to make such an association impossible. Any prominently displayed picture of Jesus in a government location, no matter how local, is perceived as a religious act. It seems that we’ve lost our ability to appreciate the wider realm of possibilities. And that is sad. Who was Jesus, really? Historians and theologians come to no consensus on the issue. One thing is for certain, he’s sure to set people against one another wherever he appears.

Assaulting Pepper

“I’m a Pepper, he’s a Pepper, she’s a Pepper, we’re a Pepper,” so goes a jingle that is still in my head decades after I last heard it. Early in my marriage I learned that Dr. Pepper was my wife’s favorite, and we sometimes purchased it by the case when we felt daring. I seldom drink soft drinks anymore, having converted to a more juice-oriented penchant with the increase of years and poundage. I always found it to be a pleasant flavor, however, and it was a frequent choice in those halcyon days when I could eat or drink without much regard for potential tonnage. My wife resurrected my interest in the cola with a link to Time’s NewsFeed announcing that some Creationists are boycotting the soda because of an ad that looks like evolution. The ad campaign shows the evolutionary progress chart we’ve all seen with the tipping back of a Dr. Pepper making the ape human. Creationists aren’t known for their sense of humor, but boycotting a drink because of implied heresy implies a fascinating study.

Boycotting companies that offend moral sensibilities is not an unreasonable response to ethical dilemmas. I haven’t shopped for some products for years because I don’t like what the company does. My choice, I’m sure, has little impact but it makes me feel better about myself. Sometimes the choice is religiously motivated—if I don’t want to support a particular group I won’t buy a product they offer. Secular companies, however, seldom offend theological sensitivities. I, for one, would seldom know the guilty party: the founder of the company? The current CEO? Someone in upper management? An advertising director? Do all employees have to agree with my religious outlook? Ahh, but then there is the political angle.

This is a presidential election year and the first one since 1980 without a Republican candidate who is a darling of the Religious Right. Not to suggest that Reagan or Bush the First were really as religiously orthodox as they were presented, but the perception of their friendliness to conservative Christian causes went unquestioned. With a “liberal” in the White House and the only viable alternative a mysterious Mormon, frustration must be building. On top of it all, Dr. Pepper is showing a funny image that might be interpreted as suggesting a simian forebear to those who drink the stuff! I think I understand the anxiety, and it might help if they just had a drink to calm down. After all, “wouldn’t you like to be a Pepper too?”

Dare to evolve