Tintinnabulation

On a summer’s day when I can work with the windows open, I hear the bells of a local church.  We haven’t been in our current location long enough to know for sure, but they seem to come from the direction of the United Methodists.  Around noon each day they ring out hymn tunes to which I often find myself filling in the words.  These are traditional hymns that I’ve known from childhood, and there’s an easy familiarity about hearing them, although my own spiritual journey may have taken me in different directions.  The sound of bells is so pleasant, I think, that nobody really objects.  Then I wonder about what I thought.

Music in public places does impact other people.  Consider the heavy metal or rap booming out of a passing car with the stereo turned up too high for human consumption.  Or jazz in the park.  Music impacts other people.  What, I wonder, is the message those of other religions hear along with these old hymns?  Do they suggest more than the praise of the locals for their version of the Almighty?  Is there some subtle proselytizing going on?  Is the music for members of the parish only, or can outsiders hear it and be free of obligation?  In many ways this encapsulates, I believe, the conflicts rife throughout our nation.  Traditionalists who see nothing wrong with “white” Christianity spreading its message but who object to a mosque being built in their community would likely find church bells comforting, even if they personally don’t attend.  Those from the outside, meanwhile, hear a message of cultural superiority.

Some sects feel compelled to praise God vocally, often and enthusiastically.  Their religion insists they do so.  Hymns ringing from the steeple, even if they’re not exactly your brand, participate in that mandate.  The deity likes to be adored.    (Think Psalms.)  This specific divinity, however, isn’t alone.  Perhaps beyond the bounds of where these sound waves flatten out to inaudibility, there are others with religious beliefs often older.  They too have rules about how to behave.  They may not be friendly to those who come bearing a new message of a new truth.  Globalization follows in the wake of technology and no god beyond the laws of physics oversees tech.  Our smartphones have made the world a much smaller place.  In such tight quarters, sounds carry.  Church bells, innocent as they seem, may be heard as a war cry.  But I wouldn’t suggest such things on a day so pleasant that I can work with my windows open and listen to the bells.

Religion in the City

It’s 5 a.m., so what are all these people doing here?  On the highway.  It’s still dark and I’m on my way to the choice of public transit that will take me to New York City.  You see, telecommuting is never 100% city-free.  Somehow I’d been thinking that once we’d gotten away from New York things would be quieter.  Then I remembered that in two decades, if current trends and models continue, nearly half of the US population will live in just eight states.  New York and Pennsylvania are two of them.  Those of us who’ve moved here to get out of the rat race have made our own little mouse race, I guess.

Being in the city after an absence of almost three weeks was a shock to the system.  The first things I noticed were how loud and crowded it was.  In the summer Manhattan has, I was forcefully reminded, lots more tourists than the winter months when it feels like, as one comrade says, Leningrad.  As always when I’m in the masses on the streets, I think about how religious New York City is.  And how secular.  It is, I suspect, a cross-section of American (and international) beliefs.  People come here looking for something transcendent.  Otherwise, why leave home?  Tourism can be a sacred industry.  It brings people from different places together and, in the best of circumstances, forces them to get along with one another.

There are plenty who seek to convert those who are different.  On my way to Penn Station last night, as the light was beginning to fade in Herald Square, I woman had set up a portable mic and speakers.  She was preaching, ignored, to the evening crowds.  Among the strangers are those who believe differently.  Those who are ripe for conversion.  It’s all part of New York’s background hymn.  Then on the sidewalk I spied, scrawled in chalk, “Repent and obey Jesus — Heb 5:9;” the writing on the walk.  “And being made perfect, he became the author of eternal salvation unto all them that obey him” the selected verse reads.  We can overlook that it says nothing about repenting.  This is, after all, the melting pot where religions encounter, mingle, and blend.  Even the Fundamentalists must feel it from time to time.  The traffic home at 10:30 p.m. is quieter.  The day, I will learn, is not over yet.  Such is religion in the city.

Pagan Values

“Pagan” used to be a pejorative term. If we’re honest we’ll have to admit that it is still used that way by many people. All the term really denotes, however, is a believer in “non-Christian” traditions. The classical pagan was someone who’d “never heard of Jesus,” and therefore hadn’t bowed to the obvious truth. In the current religious landscape a pagan is someone who makes a conscious choice to follow different gods. Looking over history, there are plenty to choose from. If you don’t limit yourself to monotheism, there’s no compunction to stop at just one. Paganism is a flourishing religious choice today. Getting over the stigma will require effort for a long time to come, as a video a friend sent me from Heat Street shows.

This video show pagans in the US Army at Fort Jackson. It’s worth the three minutes of your life that it’ll take you to watch it. Pay special attention to what the chaplain says. We’ve been acculturated, through monotheistic lenses, to ridicule those who believe in many gods. We’ve also evolved beyond the stage where E. B. Tylor could inform us that the most natural form of religion is animism and we have to be taught to unlearn it. We’ve also had the natural human tendency to believe in magic laughed out of us. We can’t accept that anything could exist that doesn’t conform to the laws of physics as we currently understand them. One size fits all. And many think even one god is one too many. As the chaplain says, religion takes on a whole new meaning when your job is asking you perhaps to sacrifice your life for others. You need to allow belief to thrive. The military is coming to grips with paganism.

Belief systems aren’t necessarily rational. I’m reminded of this whenever someone comments that, Mormons, say, believe strange things. I think of what Christianity asks of us and realize it’s only a matter of distancing. All religions ask their adherents to accept the unbelievable. To the great frustration of materialistic reductionists, it is human nature to accept a spiritual world. We are conscious beings and we see intention in the world. Apart from the Whitehouse, the universe seems to be filled with intelligence. We may call it different things. The labels may come in foreign languages. Deep down, however, we all know the feeling. We can teach ourselves to ignore or deny it, but believing is as natural as breathing. If the Army allows pagans—and there’s more than just a few—we should open up both our eyes and our minds. Entire worlds await those willing to do so.

It’s Okay

It once seemed improbable that an entire book could be written on one word. The first time I noticed this I was a doctoral student who’d run across the late William Holladay’s published dissertation on the Hebrew word shuv. Wow, I thought, an entire book on a single vocable. One syllable, nonetheless. Thus I was predisposed to read Allan Metcalf’s OK: The Improbable Story of America’s Greatest Word. The justification Metcalf gives for his “greatest word” award is the fact that OK is the most-used word of American origin world-wide. Even in languages with other scripts, there are ways of fabricating the “okay” pronunciation and everybody knows what it means. It’s really quite interesting. All the more so since OK first appeared as a joke. It’s now used by everybody in all seriousness. Just think of what one says to someone who’s been hurt or is ill. Isn’t the first question inevitably, “Are you okay?”

OK, you may be saying, but you say your blog’s about religion. Yes, and I’m getting to that, okay? Along about halfway through the book, Metcalf discusses how OK tends not to be used for products because it suggests mediocrity. An exception was James Pyle’s O.K. Soap back in the 1860’s. One of the ads included this affidavit: “The most intelligent classes in New-York use it. Editors of most of the religious papers patronize it.” I had to smile at that. Religious folk had, and sometimes still have (when they’re not too oily) the reputation of clean living. If you’re selling soap, you’re selling sanctity. It’s a very ancient connection. Anthropologists have shown time and again that purity is a concept that the religious own. Something about being worldly makes you feel like you should take a shower.

And it’s not only soap that makes okay religious. In the concluding chapter that describes OK as an American philosophy based on the “I’m Okay—You’re Okay” transactional psychological school, Metcalf notes we treat religions in just that way. Religious tolerance is saying “your religion’s OK.” That’s a lot to think about, considering that we’re talking just two letters here. And this book was written before the 2016 election, when tolerance was a word Americans were just beginning to understand. Maybe our hope is in getting OK back into circulation. After all, giving national security secrets away to Russia is okay. If you’ve got a Republican majority who’s going to quibble? Even Russians know what OK means, at least when it works to their advantage.

Palms and Thorns

“Holy Week” affects only some. That thought may be disturbing to those who still think of religions as a one-size-fits-all phenomenon. So, although today is Palm Sunday for many, for others it’s just Sunday. Not even all Christians recognize the same Palm Sunday. The question that interests me, though, is the one regarding which religion is the right one. I personally suspect this is the behind the rise of the Nones, but I’m getting ahead of my story. How did we come to this impasse? How did we come to believe that only one winner takes it all, spiritually speaking? The answer may lie in evolution.

I don’t mean biological evolution. Borrowing a principal for how this factual occurrence works, however, may help to understand the diversity of religions. For species to differentiate, they must be isolated from each other somehow. Groups that are available for interbreeding will do precisely that. When populations are separated, subtle changes add up over the passage of time so that when they come together down the road mating’s simply an impossibility. Religions behave the same way. The difference, apart from biology, is that many religions allow multiple gods. They aren’t so different from each other. In fact, we’re not even sure if gods are sufficient to define “religion.” People from diverse cultures in ancient times, the evidence seems to indicate, tried to match up their gods. Your Zeus is our Odin kind of thing. Monotheism—the main form of religion that has a problem with evolution—is the ultimate exceptionalist belief system. Our one deity is the only deity and everybody else is wrong. When populations come together we can’t even agree that the God who’s historically the same is in reality the same. Ours is slightly better.

Amid all the chaos created by religions, academics have decided they’re a phenomenon not worth studying. Academics often lose sight of the larger picture. What happens outside the classroom or laboratory is real life too. And outside the walls of the ivory tower the faithful are gathering. Some today are doing it with palm branches in hand. Others are looking on, bemused. The important thing is we don’t talk about it because talking might lead to understanding. And understanding might make us concede that others have some good points to make with their religion as well. How can you feel special in the eyes of your own god when other people suggest other truths might also apply? No wonder someone will end up crucified by the end of the week.

Prejudicial Monsters

snowinaugustWitnessing injustice is traumatic. Especially when you’ve been conditioned to believe there is nothing you can do about it. That helpless feeling crushes you as you see the guilty, the powerful, the cruel getting away with whatever they want to do. This is the perspective of young Michael Devlin in Snow in August. Pete Hamill’s novel is full of observations about prejudice and ignorant blustering about those who are different in 1940’s New York City. Michael accidentally observes a robbery that may also be a murder. The perpetrator, an older boy who leads a gang in Brooklyn, hates Jews. Michael, however, has become the shabbos goy for a synagogue that has seen better days. Although a Catholic, he is curious about this strange rabbi he comes to know and what this other religion teaches. At the same time, Jackie Robinson is being called up to the Brooklyn Dodgers and prejudice about an African American playing in the major leagues sets up a parallel to the story of understanding the Jews.

It is an engrossing novel. I have to confess, however, that I read it because of the golem. A traditional Jewish monster, the golem is an animated being of mud that protects oppressed Jews. In the novel this begins as a legend Rabbi Hirsch tells the boy as they teach each other their native languages. Michael learns Yiddish as the rabbi learns English, and the story of the golem is part of the rabbi’s own sad history as a Jew during Nazi days. Then as Michael, his mother, and the rabbi are all beaten or molested by the gang, it is time for the golem to make his appearance.

Not exactly a monster story—as often in such cases the monster is someone recognized as fully human but without sympathy for those who are different—Snow in August is a thoughtful, almost nostalgic tale of “a simpler time.” What we learn, however, is that it wasn’t really simpler at all. Prejudice could be worn openly and proudly. What many of us may have forgotten, until recent elections forced us to remember, is that such hateful intolerance is still very common. We live in a world where hatred can be currency and bigotry has more power than we’d like to admit. Reading stories, such as Snow in August, will become increasingly important in days ahead. We will need to remind each other that even if only as metaphors golems do indeed exist. All we have to do is believe.

The Devil Made Me

TheWitchesWitch-hunts, I suspect, will become all the rage again if a certain presidential candidate is elected. The fear of witches is not easily explained in a world driven by materialism, but certainly misogyny plays an unholy role in much of it. Stacy Schiff’s The Witches: Salem, 1692 has been selling well. Since my wife is one of the many descendants of the Towne family that suffered three witch accusations resulting in two executions (Rebecca Nurse, Mary Esty, and Sarah Cloyce) we read this book together. It is a detailed account of the year we went mad. A year when being different, especially not being Puritan, and not being male, was dangerous. Religious tolerance was not a gleam in the colonists’ eyes since religious freedom translated into not being forced into the government church, not allowing others the same privilege. Indeed, as Schiff points out, religious tolerance was considered by many to be a satanic idea. If ministers starved due to such freedom, it would be easy for Satan to take over. As it was, the Dark Prince seems to have done a pretty good job among the Puritans without such tolerance.

The idea of the Devil has been (and still is) the ultimate scapegoat. People in a capitalist society are naturally frustrated—surprisingly few see this—and frustration always seeks a reason for its own existence. That is patently clear at Salem: blame the Indians, blame the French, blame the Quakers, blame the women. Any and all may be agents of the Devil. Even the descriptions of the Lord of Darkness varied so much that, were he a human, no one could be quite sure who it was they saw. The Devil always takes the form of your enemy. All it takes is an influential clergy willing to push tense believers over the edge. Soon we begin building walls. Then we build gallows.

Religious tolerance has always been a frightening thought. Protestantism challenged a somewhat uniform Catholicism and the mite of a doubt burrowed deeply into peoples minds: is my religion the wrong one? Tolerating other religions means admitting that yours might be wrong. The logic that plays itself out is a terrifying one to some. Belief is never easily changed. States can’t stand dissenters. The only capital crime for which the federal government still executes citizens is treason. Treason sits uncomfortably on the other side of the coin whose obverse reads “tolerance.” You’d think that three centuries would be long enough to learn something. Unfortunately some lessons—often tragic ones for the powerless—have to be played out over and over before we start to comprehend that Satan can be anyone we want him to be.