Psalm 151b

sinead-oconnor-take-me-to-churchI can’t claim to know much about Sinéad O’Connor. When she did her Saturday Night Live act a few years back, I remember the outrage among several Nashotah House students muttering unholy threats. Not that they were Catholic, having *ahem* celibacy issues, but they objected to a picture of Pope John Paul II, known colloquially as “J2P2,” being torn up. This symbolic gesture lost her, on campus anyway, about a dozen fans. I had nearly forgotten the Irish bardess when my wife sent me an NPR story on her recent song, “Take Me to Church.” I was immediately struck by the lyrics that, to this old Psalter reader, sounded very much like a Psalm. The lyrics, while some will certainly disagree, resonant very strongly with the self-confession that permeates the hymnal of ancient Israel. Not that O’Connor has suddenly become a proper Catholic, but she has entered the band of David.

Many popular artists over the years, I would contend, have struck that familiar chord. Anyone who reads the Psalms at face value will find it hard to miss the angst of the writer who tries to do right only to find that s/he needs someone to “take them to church.” Music is the confessional of the soul. Psalms can be a most secular book. The way some biblical scholars like to explain it is that the Torah and the prophets are God speaking to (read “commanding”) people, and Psalms are the opportunity of people to speak their mind to the divine. This might explain the otherwise inexcusable anger that pours out in invective which, if we’re honest, we’ll have to admit to having felt from time to time.

The line we draw sharply between sacred and secular is attenuated in the Psalms. In fact, it is in any honest religion. When religions present themselves as strictly lived as if people could be truly righteous while others should be excluded, trouble is on the horizon. Pictures get torn up, and the “faithful” grow angry. I know few who would argue that humans are perfect just the way we are, yet, for the most part, we try to do what is right. The standards any religion proffers are too high, and we are bound to fail. Perhaps the saving grace, if I may borrow a bit of religious language, is that even the secular can write effective psalms along the way.

Call it the Blues

BluesBrothers

Coming back to The Blues Brothers after a couple of decades proved to be a kind of personal enlightenment. Of course I remembered “We’re on a mission from God,” as a catch-phrase, but in the intervening years I’d forgotten what that mission was. The movie is, as it were, backstory for the Saturday Night Live sketch in that show’s halcyon days. Watching the movie as an adult I was astonished at how positively religion is portrayed. Jake and Elwood’s mission is to save their childhood Catholic orphanage. Although there are a few laughs at the expense of religion, the movie as a whole is a redemption story with a surprising lack of irony. Released from prison where he was doing time for trying to do the right thing, Jake has an authentic religious experience and from that point on, the mission is unquestioned. In a self-sacrificial move that lands the whole band in prison, the Blues Brothers pay the taxes owed and save the orphanage. They are doing time for saving poor children.

I reflected on how, since 1980, it has become difficult to find mainstream movies that are so positive toward religious values. Not coincidentally, the 1980s saw the tragic Reagan years when religion and politics blended to the permanent detriment of religion being taken seriously. Since that time the cynicism has grown considerably. We are constantly reminded of it as conservative pundits force “Christianity” into a more and more reactionary mode, condemning all that reason has finally released from the dark ages. This is religion which thrives in the darkness of ignorance and fear. And it has coopted the very definition of religion itself. It is hard to imagine a “mission from God” being taken half as seriously today as it was when Jake and Elwood, although personally irreverent, nevertheless take the ethical call so seriously.

Today the “mission from God” is to protect one’s personal investments. Shut out those who require special consideration or those whose lifestyle differs from that which is putatively biblical. Anyone who dares step out of line is, in this enlightened era, condemned to the outer darkness. The Blues Brothers always wore dark glasses. While initially a branding gimmick, even this has symbolic value in the public view of religion. After all, Roman Catholic Sister Mary Stigmata gives them a sound thrashing for their profane language. But they find the truth in a black, evangelical service. There is a tolerance here—the neo-Nazis end up buried in their own grave—that has since vanished. The dark glasses hide something vital. The only time they are removed in the movie is to deceive. I wonder, I just wonder if with the glasses removed Jake saw a future for which the only prudent response was to hide once again.

Tebow or Not Tebow?

It is time to bow to the inevitable. I am not now, nor have I ever been, a sports fan. Every web page I open, however, seems to feature Tim Tebow, as if the media had never seen an evangelical before. Where have people been? What is even more amazing is that this athletic kid has invented an entirely new human gesture, “the Tebow.” Incredible what young folks can accomplish these days. And as Saturday Night Live has showed us, Jesus really isn’t that much of a football fan after all.

Ashamed at my naiveté, I decided to research the history of tebowing. What I found shocked and amazed me. Like so many modern day marvels, Tebowing seems to have been invented by those prescient Sumerians. Even before humans perfected the Tebow, semi-divine characters showed them how. This cylinder-seal depicts the monster Humbaba illustrating the correct posture to Gilgamesh and Enkidu. They do not, apparently, take kindly to his correction.

In the example below we see a rare double-kneed Tebow performed by an Asian football god while a hopelessly underchurched Joe Paterno looks on, hopelessly standing.

Fast forward a few centuries to a seasonal scene and we find shepherds tebowing to some baby. It is a fair guess that they suppose the baby to be a football incarnate.

Lest we think the Tebow has been coopted by the Christian crowd, we must remember that no religion has a copyright on humility. In this scene from Norse mythology, a clearly pagan Hermod tebows before the goddess Hela. She does not look amused.

Americans, who after all claim to have invented the Tebow, can trace the gesture back to our founding father himself. In this famous painting of George Washington at Valley Forge, just after the crucial touchdown, the great man can be seen tebowing in the snow.

The snow is a great segue to the Cold War. Here, in a government photo, we see Soviet naval infantry tebowing as they contemplate the big game. They are not now, nor have they ever been, Broncos.

Now, none of this resembles the education I received during my three degrees in religious studies. No matter. ‘Tis the child becomes the man, as they say. And since a little child shall lead them, we can all learn to tebow as if there were no tomorrow. If the actual Tebow is as bright as the sports-scholarship students I taught at Oshkosh, Rutgers, and Montclair, the education of the future will include a lot lower academic expectations and, I suspect, lots and lots of Levis with holes in the knees.

Ezekiel’s Equinox Paradox

Like the great celestial wheels of antique imagination, the seasons continue their wearisome roll across the earth. On a day long marked as a holiday among those more closely attuned to nature than most modern people in developed nations, we face the beginning of autumn. Change is in the air and already the gray skies that have predominated the eastern seaboard over weeks since Irene seem to have winter on their minds. Changes always call to mind how the human mind tends to divide what it sees into categories. The Bible is one place that this tendency is crucial. The whole scheme behind clean and unclean comes down to the need to make discrete that which nature shamelessly blends. When it comes to deity, the party line has always been (at least in the monotheistic religions) that God is like one of us. We can’t imagine human very well without gender, and so God becomes a guy. Notwithstanding protests to the contrary, early religions did take that distinction literally; divinity and masculinity were of a piece.

This fact makes it all the more intriguing when the Bible itself offers a few passages that call this orthodoxy into question. A few verses explore the trope of God as female, but they quickly back away and revert to the male God when taking on more literal terms. Hebraic culture was monistic, not dualistic. God as “spirit” was not really a possibility in the Hebrew Bible. God as a big man fits the picture better. One of the voices that claims dissent is that of Ezekiel. No surprise there—Ezekiel has been analyzed as everything from a dreamer to a dropper. Ezekiel’s understanding of God, however, is deeply imbued with temple imagery. Ezekiel was a priest without a sanctuary, and so his view of God suffered from temple vision. Nevertheless, the strange account of Ezekiel’s vision of Yahweh coming to Babylonia that opens his book demonstrates a startling lack of clarity when it comes to divine gender.

When two people meet, as psychologists have long noted, the first bit of information they attempt to discern is gender. Perhaps it’s the old fight or flight reflex from our reptilian brains, or maybe it is the opportunistic mating behavior that so obviously characterizes our species, but we are very uncomfortable when we can’t make a gender assignment. It is the whole premise behind Saturday Night Live‘s old sketch of “It’s Pat.” When Ezekiel first espies God he describes the deity in terms of glowing metal. But notice that he begins, “And I saw as the colour of amber, as the appearance of fire round about within it, from the appearance of his loins even upward, and from the appearance of his loins even downward, I saw as it were the appearance of fire, and it had brightness round about” (1.27). Beginning at the loins the prophet looks the deity up and down and concludes God is like fire. This image does not long survive the vision, for Ezekiel quickly reverts to masculine imagery for God. Even in the face of evidence that God is not gendered, the faithful must make him so, for the age-old appurtenance of male superiority suffers immeasurably without the camaraderie of God.