Whose Canon Is This?

Being a Bibles editor, I suppose, is a rare kind of job these days.  The book that defined our culture now rests in the back seat under discarded fast food bags and covenants of a more modern kind.  Often it surprises me how little we really know about the Good Book.  When I was a teenager I discovered that Catholic Bibles had more books than the Protestant versions with which I’d grown up.  Had I been more attuned to historical issues at that point this surely would’ve raised a crisis.  Had we left out some sacred books?  That would seem to be a grave mistake.  As I was making my way through all the translations of the Bible you could find in a rural area in pre-internet days, I began to read the Apocrypha.

The title “Apocrypha” translates to “hidden” or “obscure.”  Martin Luther’s argument was that these books were never in the Bible recognized by the Jews (therefore, by extension, Jesus), and therefore should be left out.  My question upon reading them, as it was regarding just about any book, was “did this really happen?”  That was the acid test for a Fundamentalist youth.  If something really happened it was, by definition, true.  The implications of this for the books of the Protestant Bible only became clear later.  Scripture is more subtle than that.  So it is that I’ve been thinking about how we in Bible-land privilege the western canon.  Not only are the Deuterocanonical books called “Apocrypha,” we leave out the books of the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church, despite its 45 million members.

The books of 1 Enoch and Jubilees are included in the Ethiopian canon, but they can be tricky to find even now in the wide world webbed together.  Western biblical scholars have begun to take strong interest in these books, but the days are long passed when scholars could determine the content of the Bible.  The Good Book has taken on a life of its own that no amount of scholarship can challenge.  Minds have already been made up and tightly closed, even as we continue to gain information on ancient contexts and the massive collection of writings that never made it into anyone’s Bible.  Fundamentalism, so very certain of itself, has defined a circumscribed Bible to which nothing may be added or taken away.  Even as John of Patmos wrote that admonition, however, the Bible recognized by early Christians was growing.  And, ironically, some even left out his book.  Such matter remain hidden indeed.

Which Bible Again?

Which Bible? That’s a fair enough question. No matter how much you want to deny it, western culture always has been and always will have been biblically based. That being the case, it’s best to know which Bible we’re talking about. The Protestant Bible is America’s Good Book. Although there were Catholics before Protestants were a gleam in Luther’s eye, the latter laid early claim to the Bible. When a Bible appears in a social or civil religion context, it’s most likely Protestant. The Catholic Bible contains extra material—that which Protestants call The Apocrypha. Satisfied that Luther was right to leave the Deuterocanonical books out, their role as fake good news has never been questioned. If the King James was good enough for Jesus and Paul, they say, only half in jest.

Some Evangelicals belong to the King James only movement. They come up with alternative facts when faced with the reality that the King James translation includes the Apocrypha. Yes, it’s right there in black and white. The Authorized Version of the Bible included the “Catholic books.” I was reminded of this the other day when I was searching for a simple factoid—how many words are in the King James Bible? The vast majority of websites give the unquestioning answer of 783,137. They may then break it down into “Old Testament” and New. Almost always they leave out the Apocrypha. The word count there is 152,185, and if my math serves, that brings the total to 935,322—not quite a million words. The Good Book is a big book.

The King James Onlyists (yes, that’s a thing) have bigger problems than the Apocrypha. What King James is the onlyist? The KJV you buy in your Christian bookstore is one of the many 18th century revisions of the 1611 King James. You see, translations are hardly stable. They change over time. Even the Revised Standard Version isn’t completely standard. I noticed while reading it as a kid that words had been changed over time. If our beloved Onlyist friends want to be purists and go back to the 1611 then they’ll have the problem of the Apocrypha to deal with. So which Bible? It’s a fair question. Catholic Bibles are bigger. Some Orthodox traditions also include such exotic books as Jubilees and 1 Enoch. And, from this we should take a lesson. Where there’s 1 Enoch, there’s always another not far away.

Faith for Sale

Materialism can be defined in a number of different ways. One of the more common is that people desire material things. We want stuff. Now, we all need things to survive. My sympathies are always with the poor for whom each decision can be a potential tragedy. Spend too much on something and you may not have enough left to purchase something you need. As people, though, we all long for nice things. So it is that places like dollar stores exist. The dollar store is not the same as the “five and dimes” with which I grew up. The latter stocked things that were, in large measure, practical. Things you might need: pencils, string, soap. A dollar store, however, may lead you down a different path. A lot can be had for a dollar. Some of it may seem to promise more than it can deliver.

IMG_2670

My wife sent me a photo of a dollar store where the window was lined with what appears to be religious statuary. I’d be lying if I weren’t to admit that my first impulse was to go and purchase some cheap salvation. I’m sure the statues aren’t made of stone. I’m not even Catholic, so I’m not sure a one-dollar Mary would help with much of anything. Still, it is something to buy. Something material. Something that seems to make promises beyond itself. Here is the danger of the dollar store. It’s only a dollar!

Every now and again I play with this thought-experiment: if I knew that I would only survive one more year, what would I buy? Many things seem superfluous in the face of eternity. Would material comforts, or larks, do anything more than depreciate the little I would leave to others? That game tends to show materialism in a rather crass light. What do I really need to buy? We all have our weaknesses, for sure, but it can’t hurt once in a while to think that the material is just that: material. And we might have a very different set of values if we didn’t measure worth in terms of material gain. Faux-stone Mary would likely back me up on that.

School Bible

BibleSchoolConstittnAs a very young scholarlet, I recall the horror expressed when some form of prayer was expelled from public schools. It had to have been in the late ’60’s. Maybe early ’70’s. The nation, it seemed, was headed for Hades in a hurry. Little did I know that this was part of a long, drawn-out—tired, even—battle. Steven K. Green’s The Bible, the School, and the Constitution: The Clash that Shaped Modern Church-State Doctrine gives pretty close to the full story. Bible reading in public schools was foundational, in the beginning. In the early days of public education, the Bible was ubiquitous. It was considered non-sectarian since practically everyone was a Protestant. When the religious mix of the country began to diversify in the mid-1800’s, a new dynamic emerged. People got upset. There were riots. People were killed. Legislation was proposed that would explicitly add God—Jesus even—to the Constitution. Who knew?

Green’s study takes a close look at the various cases that arose around the time of the Civil War regarding the Bible in school. Protestants, it seems, didn’t appreciate that Bible reading, in the King James Version, without comment, violated Roman Catholic policy. The first to challenge Bible reading in public schools were Christians. Secularists only joined the fray later. I’m oversimplifying, of course. Some Catholics wanted equal time, the reading of the Douay Bible instead of King James. Others wanted Catholic schools to receive state funding. Nobody was really aware of other religions such as Hinduism or Buddhism. It was a country of limited religious imagination. Various groups tried in various ways to get God—their God only—into schools as the default deity. And so the fun continued.

For me, it was eye-opening to realize that all of this isn’t new. The legislation, since long before my grandparents were born, has been heading in the direction that led to the aggrieved tears in my youth. Green points out, however, that the conflict has never been completely resolved. School vouchers and a long spate of evangelical presidents have had their impact on our children. The Hades that we feared has only come with the weaponizing of our culture, largely by those who want Bible reading back in the schools. The thing we fear finds us through the thing we love. Ironically the issue never seems to be education. God or guns—it’s the power that we want. The early debates revolved around morality. How could kids be moral without Bible reading? How the definition of morality has changed. We, as a nation, still can’t figure out religious freedom or how to let kids be kids.

Con-Ception

Sometimes you see something so often it become invisible. I pass by a local cemetery every day, and it wasn’t until a friend from out of town came to visit that I knew of the irony of its iron gates. Immaculate Conception Cemetery is one of several Catholic cemeteries in the area. In a deeply symbolic gesture, most cemeteries are designed as the ultimate gated communities. One of the great thrills for the young is to hang out in graveyards at night to test their mettle and for boys to impress the girls and each other with their bravery. But this can lead to vandalism issues. I remember how distressed I was, upon visiting a cemetery in upstate New York on a genealogical trip, to find a family marker for several of my ancestors heartlessly toppled over. I wrote to the cemetery custodian (people still used letters in those days), and the next time I visited, it was, to my utter relief, repaired. Part of my past had been restored.

None of this, however, was what my friend pointed out. When the gates to the Immaculate Conception Cemetery are opened, the left hand gate reads, “Immaculate Con.” My curiosity aroused, I walked over the next morning to look. Indeed, “Immaculate Con” standing just beneath the cross. The right hand gate, cross-less, reads “ception Cemetery.” Without treading the road to Inception, I stood before the openly inviting gates with some wonder. Is there something deeper to this Immaculate Con? Is there something the church wants to tell us? Were the iron-mongers insinuating something covert? Or is it just the giddy over-imagination of yet another overstimulated religionist?

DSCN3298

Surely this is just the case of pragmatic spacing and pacing. The dead lie here in faith that they are counted among the chosen. Across town is a cemetery where, I noticed some years before, one half contains headstones facing east and another half has headstones facing west. Those facing east are inscribed with Roman letters, those toward the west with Hebrew. The Jewish and Christian dead lie next to each other, facing opposite directions.

Cemeteries say, despite their silence, volumes about what we believe. We put our dead out of our midst, but our cities grow and consume our necropoli, forcing us to face our beliefs yet once again. Do our deepest hopes and fears, tied so intimately with our mortality, make us who we are? We will all face death at some time. When we face the iron gates before the pearly ones, what will we see? If the gates are open, it might be that we’ll read, with our undead eyes, “Immaculate Con.”

Tree Goddess

If you’re missing a virgin, I suggest you might try West New York. According to the local section of Friday’s New Jersey Star-Ledger an alleged image of the Blessed Virgin Mary has appeared in “an unusual tree” in West New York. The local diocese, no doubt correctly, suggests that the “image” is probably “just some discoloration that resembles Our Lady of Guadalupe.” Those inclined to accept pareidolia as fact, however, have already made up their minds. The tree has been barricaded off and flowers have been laid at its base and cell phone shutters are making their electronically fabricated snapping noises. A Google image search of “Virgin Mary West New York” brought up more than a million hits. People are desperate for a miracle.

Back when I was working on my dissertation, the tree goddess was inevitably Asherah. One of my unspoken speculations from those days was that trees are evocative plants, easily playing to the human imagination. In the right conditions a young tree can be mistaken for a person at a distance. The branches, particularly in late autumn and winter, resemble gnarled fingers reaching for the sky or any unwary passer by. And the natural knots and scars on tree trunks (such as in the current example) readily fire unlikely associations. They can be eyes, mouths, faces, or other anatomical bits—as people we project ourselves onto any likely (sometimes unlikely) avatars in the natural world. If images are to be believed, hundreds of people are devoutly weeping and praying at an entirely natural formation in the wood less than two miles from the most sophisticated city in the country.

Even with the Roman Catholic Church urging caution, blind belief is not dissuaded. What does it say about us that we so deeply desire a sign from above? This is the kind of question those who claim that a reasoned materialism will inevitably trump superstition must ask themselves in profound reflection. The fact is that people always have (and always will) assigned meaning to what they see. It is the gift and curse of evolution. “I think I shall never see / A poem as lovely as a tree,” Joyce Kilmer famously wrote before being killed in World War One. This New Brunswick, New Jersey native, who died at 31 in the killing fields of France, might wonder that so many stop at that first famous stanza. To those thronging in West New York, I would recommend a little Kilmer with their miracle. Let’s leave the last word to the poet: “A tree that looks at God all day, And lifts her leafy arms to pray…”

Battle the Angels

Over the weekend I finally got around to watching Battle Los Angeles. Now, I’ve never been a fan of war movies, but I do have a soft spot for aliens, so I decided to tough it out and see who won. I knew the historic event upon which the premise of the film was based took place in 1942, before flying saucers captured the American imagination. The official Air Force story suggests that old nemesis to our control of the air: weather balloons. Considering that Los Angeles was blacked out and ground forces lobbed 1,400 artillery rounds at the things, I wonder why the balloons at my daughter’s birthday parties never managed to last the night. In any case, the movie runs with the premise that aliens have taken over the city of angels and the U. S. Marines are the ones to get the job done when it comes to taking out aliens. (The Air Force, one expects, is too busy chasing weather balloons.)

Gratuitous aliens and science fiction action may be merit enough to get into this blog, but there is actually a more compelling reason. Back in my teaching days, I tried to demonstrate to students how deeply the Bible pervades our culture. When I taught those long summer and winter term courses, sometimes lingering four hours into the night, I would break up the inevitability of my lectures with a few movie clips to show them just how often the Bible shows up in films. Sometimes the cameo appearance is a matter of fleeting seconds, but when directors pay attention to every detail of a scene, we can be sure that Bibles don’t just show up by accident. Battle Los Angeles is no different. As our platoon is being air-lifted into the alien hot zone, one of the soldiers (I couldn’t figure out which one, since most of them get dispatched in fairly short order) is shown reading the Bible. The camera hovers there a second before pulling back to show the pre-battle chatter.

The viewer is probably supposed to be reminded that there are no atheists in foxholes, as the saying goes. Or it is a sign of how serious this is: before the big guns come out, bring on the Bible? In our culture the Bible has that kind of role. I recently read of a Catholic astronomer who was seeking alien civilizations in order to convert them to Christianity. The premise is as intriguing as it is arrogant. Human beings can be tenacious when it comes to matters of belief. In Battle Los Angeles, however, we speak with our guns and our missiles. But first we read our Bibles. Without wishing to ascribe to much intentional subtlety to the movie, this might be the underlying paradigm. Once the battle begins in earnest, the Bible never comes back into play. It is human ingenuity that wins the day, and perhaps the aliens are being taught to pray.