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.

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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.