Good Book Gone Bad

The Bible is a book of horror. This isn’t the main point in Holy Horror, but the fact is terror is never far from the surface in the Good Book. My days as a young scholar of the Bible were defined by the works of feminist scholars. One of the influential books of that generation was Texts of Terror by Phyllis Trible. Not hiding behind a masculine orthodoxy, she looked at how various biblical stories appeared from the eyes of female readers. There is indeed terror everywhere. The evils of slavery condemn that hideous loss of agency when one human being becomes considered the property of another. Women, before the feminist movement began, were taught that the Good Book demands this perverted social structure. They are indeed, in the eyes of its patriarchal world, property.

Important as this realization is, the terrors of Scripture go deeper. Even overlooking the genocides—the numbers make it difficult to take in the horrors of the individuals classed as faceless victims—there are multiple accounts of gruesome murders and violence in the Bible. Wars were an annual expectation. Diplomacy was often considered religious compromise. “Us verses them” mentality led to constant conflict. When it came to executing one another, the denizens of the Good Book could be quite inventive. No doubt women and foreigners were poorly treated on a daily basis, but when left to their own devices with divine voices in their heads, the men of Holy Writ knew how to terrorize one another quite effectively.

Even after the message of Jesus of Nazareth, which included love and care and compassion, the Bible goes on to close with the violent visions of Revelation. Perhaps it’s not appreciated so much in the present day, but the Apocalypse had a difficult time making it into the Good Book. Unfortunately the reasons weren’t that it was a book of horror, but the very fact that its status was debated should give us pause when hiding behind the rhetoric of a canon with its door slammed shut. The Bible contains some high, soaring words of noble thoughts and divine consolation. God can be an empathetic lover. With its status, in toto, as a book of divine revelation we have to pay serious attention to the fact of its participation in the genre of horror. Much of this is in the backstory of the films I discuss in Holy Horror. Others may have already explored this dynamic of Scripture, but it’s often a Good Book gone bad.

The Day After

I don’t mean to be insensitive. Sometimes I get so busy that I don’t even look at the date for days at a time. This can’t be good, but I was surprised when the anniversary of 9/11 caught me completely unawares this year. That’s the kind of summer it’s been. Not acknowledging 9/11 to New Yorkers is like making ethnic jokes—it’s inherently offensive. The City is always subdued on this date of infamy. Coming the same week as Labor Day this year, I think my timing was just off. In my family, September was always the month of birthdays. My present to my brother of the 12th was late in 2001. I wanted to find something old. Something solid. Something time-honored. I wanted a sense of stability to return to a chaotic world. Being an inveterate fossil collector, I went to a local rock shop and bought him a fossilized cepholapod shell. It wasn’t much, but it was a message and a metaphor.

Today, being a birthday and a day after, feels a little like an apology to me. At the time of 9/11 I knew a few colleagues teaching in New York, but in 2001 I’d not really known the city. I’d visited a few times. I was still employed, although my personal career trauma was, unknown to me, already underway. And looking at the state of the world some fourteen years later, I wonder how much better things are. We haven’t suddenly improved, and as a nation we seem more deeply divided than ever. Candidates who resemble their caractitures more than actual people frighten me. The rhetoric is a sermon of doom. Have we all forgotten how that morning felt?

Television reception was poor, or it may have been the tears falling from my eyes as I watched, at the safe distance of Wisconsin. We’d just sent our daughter off on the school bus and now wanted her back home. I called my brother in Pittsburgh in a panic. The news had said a plane had crashed in southern Pennsylvania somewhere. It seemed the the possibilities of horror were endless that day. And yet. I awoke yesterday fretting over work. My mourning routine was harried and frantic. I didn’t even know what day it was. I glanced a paper headline on the way to work and realized that I’d overslept a tragedy. Some scars never heal. Those wounds cut by religion are the deepest. So we find ourselves on the nexus of a tragedy, a birthday, and a new year. How we respond is entirely up to us.

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Charlie Hebdo

With the tragic news coming out of Paris, a predictable set of recriminations are about to begin. Because of the actions of some extremists, “religion” will be labeled a danger to civilization and the sad loss of life at Charlie Hebdo will be chalked up to secular martyrs in the cause of reason. The reality, however, is not so simple. Fundamentalism, as one of my influential teachers used to say, is not a theological position—it is a psychological problem. Indeed, religion does not cause Fundamentalists to become violent, it is rather that religion is used as an excuse by Fundamentalists to act out their aberrations. The religious impulse, no matter how rational we become, will never go away. Those who fear that civilization will collapse might do well to reflect on the fact that religion is one of the earliest defining characteristics of civilization. It is a formalized expression of a deeply felt need, widely shared.

At times it feels as if we’re caught on a possessed merry-go-round. We weaponize our world without stabilizing economies or opportunities. (I know I’m oversimplifying here.) People turn to religion for consolation. Religions give some people the strength to deal with their difficulties. Others will use their religion to justify their hatred and fear. Weapons are nearly as easily found as sacred scriptures. One, however, is much easier to use than the other. Twelve people lie dead for trying to make the world laugh. Three others are surely feeling justified by the extremity of their faith. There is truth in the concept of weeping clowns.

Carlos Schwabe, Death of the Undertaker

Carlos Schwabe, Death of the Undertaker

Ironically, in a world where pundits and experts refuse to give any credence to religious beliefs, and do not support the study of religion and its offshoots, multiple times each year we find the press asking why this happens. I’m not suggesting that those of us who study religion have an answer, but I am suggesting that we might have some insight. Instead of the knee-jerk reaction of claiming that “religion” has claimed more victims, we need to realize that criminals have claimed victims, both human and abstract. The shooting at Charlie Hebdo is a sad reminder that simple answers are seldom correct ones. My plea has, however, never been complex: supply education, not assault rifles. That’s something in which we can believe.

Thank You

Comments being rare on this blog, I do read them when they come along. Recently I had a reader comment, in the form of a question (as sometimes happens): “Do Native American Indians do ‘Thanksgiving’?” Although I’m fairly certain this was intended as a rhetorical question, I was raised a literalist and couldn’t help trying to formulate an answer. Although I can make no claims to know Native American culture well (I wish I did) it led me to ponder the concept of Thanksgiving. No doubt the idea had at least informal religious beginnings. Even with the early European settlers, a religious diversity was already appearing. Still, although the Native Americans lost pretty much everything, they were still involved, at least according to the early accounts. The great spirit they thanked was not likely conceived of in the way that the god of the pilgrims was, and yet, thankfulness is a natural human response. Writers, often fully aware that their work deserves publication, frequently thank an editor for accepting it. It’s a deeply rooted biological response.

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For some of us, Thanksgiving is more about having time to recuperate after non-stop work for about ten months. The standard business calendar gives the occasional long weekend, but after New Year’s the only built-in four-day weekend is Thanksgiving. It is that oasis we see in the distance as we crawl through the desert sand. Time to be together with those we love rather than those we’re paid to spend time with. To rest and be thankful.

Among the highlands of Argyll, in western Scotland, is the picturesque Glen Croe. Years ago, driving with friends through the rugged scenery of boulders and heather, the little car struggled with its burden of four passengers. We stopped at a viewpoint known as “Rest and Be Thankful.” The name derives from an inscription left by soldiers building the Drover’s road in 1753, at the highest point in the climb. The Jacobite movement and the Killing Time had instilled considerable religious angst to the Scotland of the previous century and led to the calamity of Culloden less than a decade before the road was laid. These religious differences led to excessive bloodshed throughout a realm supposedly unified by the monarchy. Even though no natives protested displacement, religion led to hatred and mistrust, as it often does. Is not Rest and Be Thankful, however, for everyone, no matter their faith or ethnicity? And in case anyone is wondering, yes, this rhetorical question contains a metaphor to contemplate. Rest and be thankful.

Only Midway

Unlike some employers, my current one sees the wisdom in arriving early for a major conference. The American Academy of Religion and Society of Biblical Literature is meeting in San Diego this year, and for those of us in the New York area, it’s about as long a flight as you can have in the lower 48. Having arrived in good time, and not knowing much to do in San Diego (I don’t know of any famous writers from this area whose childhood homes I might haunt), I ended up walking to the USS Midway. I’ve never been on an aircraft carrier before, and, on the eve of a religion conference, it was a strangely moving experience. Maybe it was the recognition that I was standing on a floating city on which many people had died in various wars. Perhaps it was the fact that this was a massive piece of machinery designed for its destructive potential. Or it might have been the sheer determination that appeared in every placard: this was a cause we had to win.

No doubt, the Second World War was a just cause. The force of destruction had to stop and the aircraft carriers that enabled the war effort were a huge feature in the “Pacific theater.” Staring at these massive jets, the finest technology of their day, I knew that our greatest efforts had been poured into violence. These were not mere deterrents. Yes, people had died here, but those launched from these decks also killed. War makes claims that way. As I pondered these sobering thoughts, I came to the chapel. Obviously I had to see. An eerie recording of “Eternal Father, Strong to Save” came over the speakers as I walked in. Yes, those on a warship are in peril on the sea. If they are successful, others will have died.

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A little further along the corridor (or is it “hatchway”?), I came upon the chaplain’s room, along with my first Bibles of the trip. (I knew they would be here.) A mannequin of the chaplain, cookie in one hand, Bible in the other, sat, apparently, preparing a sermon. What does one say to those going to war? God is on our side, obviously. But what more? The Bible does not forbid warfare. It was a way of life in the centuries during which it was composed. We like to think we may have advanced since then. But as I prepared to exit back onto deck in the warm California air, I passed a display of aircraft carriers past and present. More sophisticated, more deadly weapons continue to be built. And in this day of nones, I wonder who their chaplain might be.

Akedah

AbrahamsCurseViolence, in its most basic form, is to be blamed on evolution. Not the theory of evolution, but the fact of it. More precisely, violence is a reflex of the struggle for existence. To live animals have to eat and to eat, many have evolved to kill. While violence is endemic in the world, it isn’t so rampant that species overkill their own kind. That’s rather rare, actually. Human beings have engaged in violence against one another for our entire history, and it is only within the last century or so that we’ve made any concerted efforts to stop violence against those who are different than ourselves. Among the impulses both advocating and quelling violence is religion. Bruce Chilton’s important study, Abraham’s Curse, scours the monotheistic family tree for information on why all three major Abrahamic faiths advocate martyrdom. Or more disturbingly, why they insist on sacrifice, even of our own species.

Chilton begins with the story of Abraham and Isaac. The Akedah—the binding—or near-sacrifice of the beloved son. Since Judaism, Christianity, and Islam all share this story, and since it sets the tone of a God who seemingly demands human sacrifice, Chilton explores its implications and possible origins in sacred violence. Sacrifice predates any written records, although, as Abraham’s Curse points out, it became an established fixture in urban culture when temples began to play an important role in ancient society. No one knows why we sacrifice. By the time writing came along, it was already an established part of the picture. When the book of Genesis was penned, the story of the binding of Isaac became sacred scripture. Even in the earliest days of biblical interpretation scholars puzzled over what was going on here and its chilling implications. God, after all, comes up with the idea that Abraham should be tested with the cruelest of tests. Although the Bible isn’t explicit on the point, Abraham and Isaac never appear together again after the incident until Abraham is safely dead.

Building on this common story, Chilton takes the reader through the stories of the Maccabees where Judaism develops the concept of martyrdom, through Christianity where some actually begged for it early on, and into Islam, which still practices animal sacrifice. The idea that it is noble to lay down your life, and worse, the lives of others, points to a guilty Abraham who is a paradigm of faith. An Anglican priest, Chilton is no angry atheist. He does not, however, pull any punches. If monotheistic traditions gave us a violent heritage, they can also work to dismantle it. Ironically, it is when religions are in the ascendent that they exercise their power to perpetrate violence. All three major monotheistic religions officially advocate peace and justice. But somewhere in our deepest human experience, we know what it is to feel hunger and what an opportunistic animal does about it. Abraham’s Curse does offer solutions, however, if only we could get human beings to put down their spears and read.

Dirty Laundry

Wirathu may not be a household name, although Time magazine devoted an article to his teachings last week. The media has become fascinated with religiously motivated violence of late, although such violence is nothing new. Capitalizing on the fact that many of us in the western hemisphere see Buddhism as a religion of peace, Hannah Beech’s article, “The Face of Buddhist Terror,” reveals the growing conflict between some Buddhists and Muslims in Myanmar. The article took me back to my seminary days where, in a class in systematic theology, our professor was extolling the virtues of Buddhism as a religion of peace as opposed to Christianity with its history of warfare. Not denying that history, I raised my hand and asked how Christians then had come to know Jesus as the Prince of Peace. And Muslims, as any student of religion learns, also value peace. The ideals of most religions promote peace. The problem is that the practitioners of religions are humans.

Gandhara_Buddha_(tnm)

Like our chimpanzee cousins, we humans distrust those of other tribes. In one of the more disturbing aspects of chimpanzee research, encounters between especially a male isolated from his troop and another family group often end badly. Biology has programmed us to keep valued resources for ourselves. It’s as if nature knows there are limits to her bounty, and in order to survive and thrive, some will need to starve. Or be killed. Critics of religion—and there are many who are quite vocal—often overlook the aspect of religions that call for the reversal of our natural tendencies. Yes, I’m selfish. As a biological creature, I’m concerned that I get enough to eat, and have sufficient space. I want to stockpile money so that I may retire (unlikely to happen in reality), and spend my final years in peace and relative comfort. Yet, my religious upbringing has left the door open for others. What about those with even less than me? My empathy reaches out for them. Don’t they deserve what I deserve?

The problem is always at the friction point where belief systems rub passed each other like immense tectonic plates. The Buddhists of Myanmar say they just want to be left alone. The Muslims of Myanmar say they just want to survive. Their religions are pressure points building along fault lines. Still, I suspect that there are other sources of tension and violence in Myanmar, besides religion. I know there are in American society. In fact, most everyday violence, I suspect, has nothing to do with religion. Violence is part of human nature. Religion, at its best, urges us to fight this compelling biological message of self-preservation at any cost. Religious violence is a very real cause for concern, but to get to the root of the problem we must look past religion to biology. And sometimes—just sometimes—religion turns off the flame beneath the simmering pot.

Religion, Generally

Attempting to keep this blog focused on religion, has, of course, relegated it to the hopelessly outmoded pile for many people. I run into this all the time, professional, sophisticated individuals who have moved beyond the need for religion don’t see why we should waste our time with it. It’s about as useful as a room full of year-old newspapers. Like most people who end up studying religion, for me it began as an outgrowth of a religious upbringing. When you get to college they ask what you’re interested in. When your response is “Not going to Hell,” they’re likely to send you over to the Religion Department (if there happens to be one). One of the early lessons you learn as a religion major is (or at least should be) tolerance. Sure, the beliefs of other religions, when encountered for the first time, may seem weird. If you step outside your own tradition, however, chances are a great deal of what you believe could be considered odd as well. In such circumstances tolerance is perhaps the only way to avoid violence.

The few readers who leave comments on my posts give me pause to think. I largely study religion in isolation now, without the give-and-take of academic colleagues. It is not unusual for someone to point out the bizarre, or even unethical behavior of someone else’s religion (New Atheists do this all the time). When trying to understand religion, however, we have to be honest about the fact that all religions, and non-religions share instances of bad behavior. As my grade-school teachers said, “one bad one ruins it for everyone.” Religions are just as subject to human perversions as any other activity. People do bad things occasionally. Sometimes in the name of religion (or non-religion). Rationally it is obvious that we shouldn’t blame the religion for the poor behavior of some adherents. Yet we often do.

Religion-bashing is a popular sport. Those who engage in it, however, frequently fail to take into account just how widespread religion is. By far the vast majority of people in the world, educated or not, believe in a religion. This is complicated by the fact that an agreed definition of religion is still lacking. We don’t know what religion is, but we know it when we see it. Our universities and public intellectuals often ridicule it as unsophisticated and naive. As someone who has spent a lifetime thinking about religion, I suppose I’m obligated to say it, but there is a deep truth here: religions do motivate for good as well as for evil. Both non-religious and very religious people can be bad or good. What we require to get along in such a world is tolerance. And a willingness to listen to others. Otherwise both religion and non may not survive to criticize each other.

Jacob-angel

Apples and Evil

I’m not really a mall person. Since I’m not really a techie either, however, I find myself in malls where Apple Stores are located when I can’t get by without a little help from my friends. So it was that I spent several hours at a mall earlier this week. While there I browsed an oriental imports store—the kind of place with a no-frills, I-might-be-gone-tomorrow kind of feel to it. In the front window they showcased a display of swords. Since dragons are a major motif in Chinese folklore, the transition to medieval images of dragon-slayers seemed to be at play here. I am not certain of the last time an actual dragon was reported in central Iowa. One of the swords had a Latin inscription along its blade. My Latin is very rusty, but I did recognize the word “God” amid the fantasy spell. The connection between religion and violence was facing me in that unused (I hope) weapon.

Religion often serves as an outworking of human violent tendencies. Our violence is, no doubt, a product of our godless evolution. As we ascended the tree of life that gave us birth, some other creatures on that tree thought we were tasty. In an unintentional effort to defend ourselves, we grew larger and larger brains that gave us the edge as predators. As a collective, humans tend to be overachievers. We’ve whittled away most of our large predators to the endangered list so that we might shop with relative comfort. If there is guilt about it, we can always blame God.

Evolution did not endow us well with body armor or sharp teeth and claws. People seem to have evolved mostly for running away—that’s what our physiognomy suggests. Among the earliest of weapons was the blade. To be effective a blade must have reach. The sword, the favored weapon of the Bible, grew until weight and balance became optimal. To harm another person you had to be close enough to look that person in the eye. If we look we find another person like us, and we need an excuse for our violence. Religion is readily farmed as the ground for justifying such violence, for religions combat evolution and any differences of opinion. What I was seeing through this mall window was a cross-section of the human story. The sword was ornamental and had clearly never been used. Unfortunately, such weapons are rare. Rarer than my trips to the mall, Apple Stores notwithstanding.

Round Tables and Belligerent Gods

One of those bits of mail in my part-time lecturer mailbox at Rutgers informs me that the Oxford Round Table is hosting a discussion entitled “Civilization at Risk: Nationalism, Religion and Nuclear Weapons.” Given that the cost for attending is about what I make for teaching one of my adjunct classes, and the fact that they spelled “civilisation” the American way, my guess is that the target audience resides on this side of the Atlantic. Still, the topic is indeed vital. Nationalism is a relatively new plague to arise in the human menome. Cultural differences matter little in the face of nationalism; the real issue in this ideology is dominance. Nuclear weapons add a unique poignancy to the issue, but the heart of the matter is clearly behind door number two: religion.

Religion usually makes the list of the hallmarks of early civilization. Along with complex governance and the arts, it is considered one of the aspects that marked the break from merely subsistence living. Religion, however, in its monotheistic form has more divisive power than nearly any other aspect of civilization. Polytheistic religions hardly worried if people worshipped the “wrong god.” Monotheism bears a larger burden, and that burden is not dissimilar from that of nationalism: dominance. Let’s face it – what kind of respect can you expect for a god who can’t throw the brimstone behind all those threats? And if your god doesn’t readily ante up (no visible actions, depending on who you read, since the first or the seventh centuries) then the devout must take up the spear, cudgel, or atomic weapon to prove the honor of their all-powerful god.

Uranium in the hands of an angry God

Is there a solution to the “Middle East” crisis? I’m no politician, but I would make the following humble observations. The crisis as it exists today is as much about nationalism as it is about religion. Religion serves as a convenient excuse when one’s way of life feels threatened. (Push any Neo-Con into a corner and when all the cards are on the table it will amount to precisely this.) We all want things our way. If we can’t get it, we can take it by dropping the G-bomb. It may be apt that the region of the world that instituted civilization is destined to destroy it. A cosmic symmetry pervades the idea. It might be a lot less messy if we’d all admit what the arguing is really all about.

Foxhole Atheists

It’s Veterans Day and prayer makes the headlines. The old adage about no atheists in foxholes comes to mind as those who fought for the values we hold reminisce about the not-so-happy days before the 1950s when the last semblance of normalcy in American life apparently died. The New Jersey Star-Ledger quotes a World War II veteran who participated at the Battle of Normandy saying “I might have prayed more than I ever prayed before.” No atheists in foxholes. As a lifelong pacifist, I have always believed that war is a terrible waste. 3.5 billion years of evolution and the best we can come up with is to hurl supersonic lead slugs at each other over who gets what and who deserves more than who else. I don’t deny that veterans should be honored – my father was a veteran – but war should not.

A sad truth is that many wars, probably in the history of the modern world, most wars, have been fought for religious reasons. The idea that God demands certain things ultimately leads to fighting over what it is God wants. Both sides often claiming the silent deity is on their side. Millions of mere mortals have had to pay the price. Hey, can’t we just talk about this?

War may very well have evolutionary roots. Studies of chimpanzees suggest that homo sapiens are not the only overly aggressive primates. If we deny our cousins religion, however, only homo sapiens fight for mythological causes. One of the great ironies of life is that the most advanced technology trickles down to civilian life from military applications. If something is new, it must have a tactical use against the enemy. Once the enemy is subdued, we can share the wealth. I grew up hearing about “godless Communists.” I watched in dismay as Bush declared a new crusade. I shudder when I read that Iran is developing long-range missile facilities. God is the midst of all this. Veterans protected us from the human-level wars of a bygone era. In our own homemade Armageddon, however, our own technology will doubtless become the weapons in the hands of an angry God.

If God be for us...

Faker or Fakir?

An article posted on CNN on Friday, “More teens becoming ‘fake’ Christians,” suggests that many American teenagers aren’t really Christian. Whether that is a bad thing or not I’ll leave up to the reader to determine (Kenda Creasy Dean of Princeton Theological Seminary, cited in the article, has no doubt that it is bad). My concern with the premise and the presentation of Dean’s data is much larger: who has the right to determine what is “authentic” religion? In a world daily faced with the clash of religious views, particularly among passionate believers, most scholars of religion seem to agree that one’s religion is what an adherent claims it to be. There is no way to test the authenticity of a religion empirically. Whose Christianity does Dean mean? That of Jesus? Or of Paul? Or of the Pope? It seems to me that what she suggests is that “true” religion is “passionate” religion.

Religion, however, may extend well beyond belief structures. Religionists recognize many forms of religion that are primarily activity-oriented rather than belief-oriented. Does that mean the adherents of such religions are only half-hearted members of their tradition? Do only passionate believers qualify? Who is it that has the authority to decide what any religion is? If it is seminary instructors, I’d rather face the apocalypse right now. I’ve known far too many of those to trust their judgment on defining authentic religion.

Christianity is perhaps the most fragmented religion in the world, with tens of thousands of different denominations, each declaring itself correct and authentic. What person ever purposefully believes in an incorrect religion? “I know my religion’s wrong, but I think I’ll stick with it…” Who gets to determine which is the real real religion? Passion may not be an adequate measuring stick. The clashes of religious views that leave the highest body counts are between groups equally passionate about their beliefs. In such a world where people need to learn to control their religious passion, it is my hope that mere theological assent might be more than enough in most cases. And only for religions that are belief based.

The only true religion?

The Evil That Men Do

The graveyards of humankind are filled with the victims of religious violence. That fact does not seem to have lessened the impact of religion as a whole on humankind. One reason may be that religion has been a focal point of the good and humanitarian deeds of which people are capable, as well as a justification of the most heinous. The irony is that adherents of a religion claim that a just, true and righteous god is their motivation, for good or for ill. In the same church, mosque, or synagogue, there are widely differing views that live together. Sometime the truce is an uneasy one. Sometimes the adherents are united against a common enemy.

The furor over whether a mosque should be permitted near Ground Zero has become a major political whipping boy. Heavyweights like Newt Gingrich and featherweights like Sarah Palin are quick to fire off their half-cocked mouths about the impropriety of it. Michael Bloomberg, the mayor of New York City has been given the task that kindergarten teachers around the country – around the world – should incorporate in their curriculum, the task of teaching tolerance. In an excellent speech delivered yesterday, the mayor reminded citizens of what many appear to have forgotten: without religious freedom nobody is free.

Muslims are not to be blamed for 9/11 any more than Christians are to be blamed for the Inquisition. Every religion has members that misuse their sacred trust as a vehicle for hate and repression. By forbidding religious freedom to any religious group, America sets a precedent of a growing intolerance that can only lead to more, and greater suffering. Already the Gingriches and Palins of our nation tell us that there are indeed lesser citizens and greater citizens. Those like them deserve freedom of religious expression, of marriage recognition, of family size, of medical care, and those who believe differently and therefore deserve less. Speaking only for myself, I would rather have tolerant Muslims as my neighbors than supersessionist Christians.

What’s in a Name?

Two of my readers sent me an article yesterday about Lord Jesus Christ, the Massachusetts man who was hit by a car. Lord Jesus survived the brush with death this time. Clearly the angle on this story is the human interest aspect instead of the courtroom precedent or the political scope of its ramifications. In our minds, if we’re honest, we’ll admit that we’ve already come up with a profile for a man named “Lord Jesus Christ.” We’ve already judged him and determined his motives in legally taking such a name. This is a book to be judged by its cover.

From a purely semantic point of view, the victim’s name would probably have more impact with the definite article: The Lord Jesus Christ. As it is, the name differs only in degree from the thousands of Chrises out there, of either gender, or the many Hispanic men named Jesus, or those Anglos with the surname Lord. Not to mention all those Joshuas. Our names are the labels that others immediately use to prejudge us, although mostly our names come from our parents, or sometimes spouses. We are known through life by tags branded on us by parents who have no idea who we will become. As the non-adopted step-son of a second father I changed my name and I know the baggage that goes with such a change. The burden became so great that I reverted to my birth-name after college. I felt like I had been living a lie for much of my youth. What’s in a name?

Our injured man with the newsworthy name has not yet become the savior of the world. Some religious folk are offended by his appellation, yet most of us would be flattered by someone naming their child after us. Why not aim high when it comes to names? If we are to be judged by our verbal moniker, why not select one that states our point of view? With religiously motivated terrorism on the ascendant, however, it gives me pause to think about Lord Jesus Christ being run down. A man was injured here, while crossing the street. It could have been anyone. If it hadn’t been for his epithet, the story would not be national news. More than anything else, this may reveal the significance of the name.

A message from on high?

Sex and Violence in Ancient Peru

MSNBC ran a fascinating article yesterday that strangely validated this blog. The Quai Branly museum in Paris is opening a display of Mochica artifacts from ancient Peru. Although I am no expert on ancient Peruvian religion, I do recognize the obvious connection that I have introduced here a time or two: the connection between sexuality and religion. The article states that (but does not show) artifacts of an explicitly sexual nature are among those recovered from the Mochica civilization. Bringing violence (in the form of human sacrifice) and sexuality together, the ancient Moche were just as religious as medieval (and later) monotheistic faiths that assert their right to control sexuality and dole out violence.

The MSNBC article makes clear that the sexual, sometimes violent, images are not representations of everyday life, but religious rituals associated with the death of dignitaries. Emma Vandore, the author of the article, notes that the images demonstrate the social control Mochica religion had on its people. She is clearly right. Religions, while often in the position of providing “theological” rationales for their decisions, are actually forms of social control. Individual salvation aside, your clergy want control over your life.

Tame Mochica pottery from Wikipedia Commons

Because religion is so large and so mysterious, the populace often simply complies. The Mochica artifacts, some of which are reported to be disturbing, justify this interpretation. Even an image search on the web will reveal how graphically cruel religious representations of Hell are; much more compelling in scariness than are feeble attempts in alluring one into an idyllic representation of Heaven. (Heaven is often shown as a garden, and as a sufferer of hay fever, I imagine myself sneezing through paradise.) It is no coincidence that organized religion appears on the historical scene on the coat-tails of civilization itself. The Moche were straightforward about what modern civilization would prefer to hide: religion is more about control than it is about belief.