When Like Rome

Among the constant topics of discussion, both in the academy and in its publishing ancillaries, is the loss of interest in religion.  After a period of growth early in the new millennium, as measured by college majors, interest has dropped off and Nones are set to replace evangelical Christians as the largest religious group in America.  The corresponding lack of interest in religion is extremely dangerous.  I’ve often posted on the necessity of looking back to see where we might be going, and the further back we go the more we understand how essential religion is to the human psyche.  My own academic goals were to get back to the origins of religion itself—something I continue to try to do—and I discovered that they rest in the bosom of fear.  I’m not the first to notice that, nor have others been shy about using it to their advantage.

Lack of classical education, by which I mean reading the classics, has led us to an extremely tenuous place.  More interested in the Bible, I followed the track to another ancient system of thought, but as I find out more about the religion of classical Greece and Rome, the more I tremble.  You see, ancient Roman writers (especially) were extremely conscious of the fact that fear motivated people.  In order to construct a steady state, they infused it with a religion based on fear and supported by said state.  An overly simplified view would suggest that the Jews and Christians took their religion too seriously and refused to play the Roman game.  When they wouldn’t worship the emperor (who surely knew he wasn’t a god) they threatened the empire.  The response?  A good, old-fashioned dose of fear.  Crucifixion oughta cure ‘em.

See what I mean?

The thing is, our American form of government, buoyed up by an intentional courting of evangelical Christians as a voting bloc, manipulates that fear even more stealthily than the Romans did.  People ask me why I “like” horror.  I don’t so much like it as I see its role as a key.  It is a key to understanding religion and it has long turned the tumblers of the state.  Ancient societies kept religion under state control—something the Republican Party has been advocating as of late.  Why?  Religion, based on fear, ensures the continuance of power.  Those of us who watch horror are doing more than indulging in a lowbrow pastime.  We are probing the very origins of religion.  And we are bringing to light the machinations with deus.  Let those who read understand.

Lent Presidents

Surely it’s appropriate that President’s Day falls in Lent this year. We as a nation, if we are wise, will repent of the horror we’ve elected upon ourselves. Those ashes on our foreheads remind us that sins come on a national scale as well as an individual. Any nation touting supremacy is in need of Lent, even if it’s founder’s day. Especially if it’s founder’s day. It’s difficult to believe that either George Washington or Abraham Lincoln would’ve truly thought the United States better than other nations. Having a secure and free place to live wasn’t an exercise in supremacy, but in the belief that people should be able to govern themselves. An Easter, if you will, of beliefs.

Symbolism is a major part of any religious holiday. The eggs, rabbits, and butterflies of Easter all represent something just as the burnt palms from last year’s Palm Sunday do. George Washington never chopped down the cherry tree—that was a story made up many years later. It was, however, a symbol to represent a truth. To represent a president who couldn’t bring himself to lie. The fact-checking statistics show that the current incumbent of Washington’s chair lies over five times a day. Listen closely here, for this is symbolism—yes, he did chop down the cherry tree. Where do you think those ashes on your forehead have come from?

An administration where supremacy is daily in the news is surely a sign of trouble. This President’s Day a national S.O.S. goes out, but to whom can supremacists call for help? They are already the greatest in their own minds. Supremacy was the hubris of Rome that eventually ensured its fall. The belief that the Roman male was the most supreme human template possible—far above women, slaves, and foreigners—was held until the day the Vandals and Visigoths came to the door. Preoccupied with its own greatness, it was an empire unable to see the symbolism clearly on display all around it. By that point it had become a “Christian nation”—a state with God’s own blessing on its white males and their entitlements. The insanity borne of excessive pride was no stranger to the seat of the emperor. Less than fourteen-hundred years later a new government would form. It’s leader so full of integrity and dignity that the common person believed he couldn’t cut down a cherry tree without telling the truth. And this year his birthday falls in Lent.

Old Salt

Time has been at a premium lately, but when I have a few spare moments I like to read the Oxford Dictionaries blog. Those of us who make a living with words often find them utterly fascinating. Simon Thomas’ post, “Worth their salt: words and phrases with roots in ‘salt’” brings a number of interesting facts to light. Salt, now on the list of public enemies, is essential to our well-being in small doses. His clever post includes “salt of the earth,” a phrase biblical through-and-through. It reminded me of the fact that the Bible’s become so porous that few people can say what’s actually in it. It’s kind of a big book, and who has the kind of time needed to read it all, let alone remember what it did or didn’t say? Many phrases are attributed to Holy Writ that don’t appear within its covers, while others that do come thence are thought to originate elsewhere. Strange but true.

We may never come to an agreement on what Jesus actually said, but “salt of the earth” is a phrase attributed to him. Indeed, he may have coined the term “saltness,” but I haven’t researched that thoroughly. The idea of essences, I’m told, is outmoded. But the idea is fascinating—what is salt that has no taste? Would it work to clear our roadways in winter time? There’s a layer of salt on my car already, and it only just snowed for the first time this year. We all know what salt is, what it tastes like—but what is its essence? (If such things exist?)

Thomas notes that Roman soldiers were paid it salt. I wonder if this was behind a phrase my step-father used to use about work. Although he and I did not get along, now that he’s gone I come back to the hidden bits of wisdom he sometimes shared. He worked very long hours, and seemed happiest when he was doing so. Early in the morning he’d limp through the house and say, “Time to get back to the salt mine.” He wasn’t a literal miner, although we lived in coal country. Salt could mean food, and the salt mine was where you worked to provide food for your family. I may not have gotten along with my step-father, but he worked hard to support a family with three kids not his own. He may have been bitter about that, but today anyone who stays with a family in hard times is considered salt of the earth. And that’s biblical.

Mark of the Beast

namingantichristI grew up believing in “the Antichrist.” As I came to realize that much of the New Testament pointed to contemporary problems (for them) with the Roman Empire and that what appeared to be predictions were actually safe ways to discuss forbidden topics, I began to worry less. It was about the past, not the future. Recent political events have ratcheted up my anxiety level again—maybe there is such an evil after all. Robert Fuller’s Naming the Antichrist: The History of an American Obsession is an important book in this regard. Although end-time worries have diminished among some now that we’re safely into a new millennium, for the true believer none of that matters. The Antichrist is a great motivator. I hadn’t realized until reading this book just how much of contemporary culture has grown from this fabricated fear.

Let’s get this straight from the beginning. In the Bible there is no figure known as “the Antichrist.” The generalized word antichrist is used only twice and in neither instance is the book in question Revelation. Early Christians speculated that the beast of Revelation might be “the Antichrist” but that identification wasn’t solidified until the beginnings of the Fundamentalist movement in the late 1800s. By the time Fundamentalism was a fully developed system, by about the 1920s, believing in the Antichrist and trying to identify him had become a cottage industry. I grew up in the shadow of Hal Lindsey and the pressing concern that “the Antichrist” was alive in the world today. Face it, The Omen loses something if he isn’t. This strange, non-biblical belief has come to define a large number of true believers.

Fuller’s book is important for the insight he brings into why some “Christians” are avowed enemies of peace, toleration, and the improvement of human conditions. Those who believe their tribe is the only correct one hold the double standard of ethical treatment of those inside and scorn and hatred of those without. This view believes that the world is to be condemned, natural resources used up, wars started, and civil rights suppressed, in the name of Christ. Perhaps you may begin to see why a chill ran down my spine as I was reading this book. We need to try to understand this perverted way of looking at the world in order to understand the forces that would rather see a dictatorial billionaire run the country than an eminently qualified woman. Reason’s got nothing to do with it. It’s all about conviction. Failure to understand that is perhaps the surest way to bring about the end of the world. We ignore religious thought to our own peril.

Foiled Again

Few things travel as well as curses. Or so it seems in a news report from Serbia. Archaeologists in Kostolac, according to The Guardian, have excavated skeletons nearly two millennia old. That’s not news, since people have been dying as long as there have been people. What makes the find extraordinary are the gold and silver metal foils that have been found at the gravesite. Inscribed in Aramaic with Greek letters, these tiny missives were rolled and placed in lead tubes to be buried with the dead. Although translations of the inscriptions aren’t given, the fact that they contain the names of demons would suggest these might be curses against anyone seeking to disturb the tombs. Such devices go all the way back to the Pharaohs, and perhaps earlier. Nobody likes to have their sleep disturbed.

Serbia, for those unfamiliar with geography, isn’t exactly next door to ancient Aram. The burials and inscriptions seem to fall into the Roman Period, however, a time of cultural diversity. When cultures come into contact—in the case of Rome and prior empires, through conquest—new ideas spread rapidly. And sometimes old ideas. The Romans, in general, didn’t like competing religions. Then again, their idea of religion was somewhat different than ours. Ancient belief systems were more or less run by the state. They served to support political ends—at least they were upfront about it. Your offerings and prayers were to be given in support of the king, or emperor, and beyond that nobody really cared. Unless, of course, you were making curses.

Curses, it was believed, really worked. Even today in cultures where belief in curses persists people tend to be physically susceptible to them. We don’t want others to wish us ill. Perhaps that’s the most surprising thing about politics today. Our society has taken a decided turn towards the more secular. Candidates for political office, even if they personally believe nothing, can still cast curses on those who are different. They can claim support of their “faith” to do so as well. Words, in ancient times, were performative. They meant something. Curses were taken seriously because if someone were serious enough to say it, they probably meant it. They could be written down and preserved beyond death. Today, however, words are a cheap commodity. You can use them to attain your personal ends and discard them once they’ve outlasted their usefulness. Perhaps we do have something to learn from the past after all.

Copper scroll from Qumran, replica. Not a curse, just an illustration.

Copper scroll from Qumran, replica. Not a curse, just an illustration.

Madness of Kings

The Roman Empire ruled the known world. Christianity owes much of its form and structure to the fact that the Romans expressed their rule in a military way and prized what they thought was order and fairness. While all of this was happening across the ocean, what are now ancient cedars had begun to grow in Roosevelt Grove, Washington. Having survived the many forest fires that sweep through this area of the northwest, these trees may be up to 2000–3000 years old with an average of about 800 years per tree. Impressed by such longevity, this year on the East Coast I’ve visited the two oldest trees in New Jersey (posts about them may be found in January and July of this year’s offerings). The Great Swamp Oak may be 700 years old, and the Basking Ridge Oak is over 600. The longest lived trees in the country, however, are out here in the west.

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The cedars of Roosevelt Grove aren’t the oldest. There are Bristlecone Pines further to the south that are twice again the age of these millennial trees. One survives from the days when writing itself was first being invented and has lived through most of human civilization. Wisely, its exact location has not been disclosed. We all know how, in a moment of foolishness, a single human being can easily destroy that which can’t be replaced. The story of the Bristlecone Pines is illustrative. A naturalist studying the trees took a core sample of the tree that, at that time, was the oldest living tree known. When his bit broke off in the tree the solution was to cut it down to retrieve the bit. Fortunately an even older tree was later discovered in the same forest and those who know where it is don’t say. It’s a form of collective madness that makes humans want to conquer. Romans and trees both stand witness.

A few miles south of Roosevelt Grove stands the Shoe Tree. For reasons unknown, decades ago campers began leaving shoes on this great conifer. Shoe trees actually exist in several locations around the country. This particular exemplar was a well-known local attraction. Shoes had been nailed to the trunk, or tied together and tossed high into the branches. Whimsical and illogical, it would have drove a Roman crazy. Then a few years back someone decided to set the tree on fire. Thinking the act had ended the joie de vivre, one unthinking person sought to change history. After the act of destruction, however, shoes were once again nailed to the now dead tree, and once again tossed into its lifeless branches. The tree next to it, I noticed, has started to acquire its own sets of footwear. If it outlasts the empires of today, there will be those of generations yet unimagined wondering about the madness that those who insist on conquering leave in their wake.

The Problem with Love

As far as we can tell, historically there is no Saint Valentine that is particularly connected to February 14. Even if there were, it is difficult to imagine a saint promoting what we know as love. Love is a slippery topic. The ancient Greeks (who did not marry for love) were so perplexed that they came up with three different words for it, and the nascent Christian community tended to prefer agape-type love. Love that expresses well-being for the community and has little to do with the physical attraction that people everywhere find so compelling. It is safe to say that Christianity has always been uncomfortable with the kind of love that Valentines Day celebrates. The holiday, because of its associations, has often been removed from the liturgical calendar a time or two. People are already prone to express their biological urges, so it is best not to give them an excuse, sanctioned by the church.

This is an odd situation, thinking love is wrong, or at best, tolerated. As far as we can tell, the earliest Christians had no particular concerns in this way. We can’t measure, of course, how people loved their spouses, but there was nothing inherent in the new religion to suggest physical attraction was bad. By the time Paul of Tarsus started writing his letters a couple of decades after Jesus’ life, at the earliest, some doubts had crept in. They seem to have been largely personal. We know little of Paul’s life, but we are aware that he saw the kind of love known as eros to be a problem. Concession had to be made to those who couldn’t control themselves, but otherwise, in good stoic fashion, love was to be ignored. By the time of Augustine of Hippo, some three centuries later, sex passed on original sin and love had become decidedly dark.

St-Valentine-Kneeling-In-Supplication

Attitudes change with time, of course. After two millennia a certain practicality sets in. We have moved through the troubadours and courtly love to psychology and deep human needs. Arranged marriages are, for the most part, considered like shackles from the past. And love, that feeling that we never completely outgrow, is believed to be a positive thing. Saint Valentine (and there were at least two of them) would likely have disagreed. While the Romans celebrated sexuality, they also believed in restraint most of the time. Valentines Day, however, still has something to teach us. Despite the commercialization of the holiday, in a world with a surplus of hatred, any kind of love is, as long as it’s mutual, is worth celebrating.