Cloaking Device

America’s book is seldom read. Those of us who spend an unusual amount of time with the Bible know this from personal experience, but others are starting to notice too. Kenneth A. Briggs’ The Invisible Bestseller: Searching for the Bible in America is a rambling account of the way a variety of everyday people from prisoners to academics and clergy use, read or not read, and perhaps inwardly digest the Good Book. There are moments of stark insight in this book, but with no narrative arc it is somewhat easy to feel like you’re reading about what random people say about the Bible. I don’t need a book to tell me that I’m odd, but much of what I read here was old hat to a guy who grew up Evangelical, went to seminary but never got ordained, completed a doctorate and taught the Bible nearly two decades before being booted out of its company. I’m not sure what I expected to find. Perhaps redemption?

Briggs does provide some useful statistics, and not as maniacally as sociologists do. We learn that few people read the Bible and the numbers are declining. Still, people buy the Bible and tend to have multiple copies in their domiciles. It is cheaper than insurance, after all. Holy Writ, however, is an alien among us. Few people have any idea what it was like to live before smart phones, let alone before the smelting of iron. The concerns and dialogues of the Bible seem so terribly provincial and, to be honest, unenlightened (if one can say such a thing about divine revelation). Still, we won’t accept a president who doesn’t lay his (and it’s always his) hand on the Good Book and swear to uphold America.

The Invisible Bestseller gave me plenty of information to ponder. Some of the tales Briggs tells are interesting. Others are so mundane as to be stultifying. The overarching fact is that the Bible is an established object in our culture. Some take it seriously enough to read it and stick with it—this isn’t easy to do, and I speak from experience here. Such people are rare. After all, apart from getting you a hall pass out of Hell, the Bible doesn’t seem to do much for people these days. Still, when I take a moment to read the Sermon on the Mount, I can’t help but feel we might be missing some wonderful rhetoric by ignoring the Good Book so much. But then again, I’m fully aware that I’m the one that’s odd. Briggs’ book stands as a testament to a couple of testaments that continue to wield enormous power without ever being read.

With Your Measure

“With what measure ye mete,” someone once said, “it shall be measured to you again.” I certainly hope that’s true, but empirical verification seems to be lacking. I’m looking at, with the full armor of irony, a postcard from Nashotah House. Those of you who’ve long read my posts (I know who both of you are!) will know my history with said sacred institution. No, it’s not with me that they stay in touch, but my wife. You see, she’s one of those women who kept her maiden name, so in the eyes of many at the sacerdotal school we were probably never properly married. They certainly never came out to wave goodbye. Anyway, this past year they’ve begun corresponding with my spouse. I can’t remember—did I ever teach there for a decade and a half? So what are these sweet nothings they’re sending?

The card in front of me informs me that they’ve been praying for my spouse. Don’t get me wrong—she’s married to me and she needs all the help she can get—I never begrudge anyone’s prayers. I also can’t help exegeting a bit. Occupational hazard. One of my students once told me “don’t exit Jesus from your exegesis.” And they tell me I have no practical experience in the real world! So I’m looking at this prayer card wondering whose autograph it is. A man wants to know who’s praying for his wife. More than that, it appears that the name was scribbled out and written again. Did someone pray for those in the outer darkness by mistake? Heaven forfend! Alas, for my meting days seem to be about done. I must have a measuring tape around here somewhere.

That same guy whom I’ve quoted above also said, “pray for them which despitefully use you,” which I suppose might be some good advice. I understand that one-percenters and their ilk couldn’t be where they are despite using you. You just can’t help it—if something is inconvenient, you can simply toss it away. Build a tower to the heavens—what can be more biblical than that? See, words are endlessly flexible. They can be twisted and turned and made to say whatever you want them to mean. And should it ever come to meting cups, there are some recipes that might call for more than a wafer and a sip of wine. This is probably all obscure, but I’m trying to read by candlelight, and this text seems to say “when thou doest thine alms, do not sound a trumpet before thee” and “when thou prayest, enter into thy closet, and when thou hast shut thy door, pray to thy Father which is in secret.” But how will anybody send you money if you don’t let them know?

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God Discount

God is great, despite what Christopher Hitchens wrote, at least, that is, if you want to save 15% without having to talk to a gecko. According to Mulder’s World—I want to believe that what I find on this site is true, but often I find myself feeling more like Scully—Mary’ Gourmet diner in Winston-Salem, North Carolina gives a grace discount. Well, perhaps this is believable. Praying in public has a long pedigree. This past Corpus Christi as I was driving back into town after a day out, I saw a procession walking down the street a few blocks from the local Catholic Church. Vested and carrying a monstrance with a humeral veil, the priest led the faithful out in public for a little recognized festival many suppose to be named after a city in Texas. Actually, I was an acolyte for Corpus Christi one year at the Church of the Advent in Boston. The well-heeled of Beacon Hill, however, knew to expect us out on the genteel streets. Private prayer in public, however, is something quite different.

As a very religious teen, I often went to United Methodist Youth events with the other faithful young. We would stop into restaurants on our long drives and make a show of praying amid the heathen. Some of us (not me, I assure you) even left Chick tracts instead of tips. If we’d ever ventured into Dixie, we might have had a discount. The problem with offering a praying in public discount is that it is impossible to tell if such shows are sincere. I have sat through many such episodes, wondering about Jesus’ statement “But thou, when thou prayest, enter into thy closet, and when thou hast shut thy door, pray to thy Father which is in secret; and thy Father which seeth in secret shall reward thee openly.” Well, that was only the Sermon on the Mount. Here we’re talking fifteen percent! “For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.” This gecko winks.

IMG_1502Public displays of piety are not uncommon. I spent yesterday at the local County 4-H Fair on a rare day off of work. The Gideons, as always, were there handing out New Testaments. Let your light so shine—they are bright orange. Religious freedom ensures that prayer in public is kosher, as is agnosticism in public. Who is harmed by a public prayer? In that diner, who is made uncomfortable? Sometimes the innocuous act of kindness is a sign of mature morality. How many times—isn’t it nearly always?—does that car cutting you off in traffic have a Jesus fish plastered to the back? “I drive my car,” Daniel Amos sings, “it is a witness.” What you truly believe shows up when you’re behind the wheel more than when you’re behind the napkin. The truth may be out there after all. In the meanwhile, my tip’s on the table.

King’s Highway

Sometimes I forget the beauty of the Bible. With its constant current of misuse in our society, it is sometimes easy to forget that, like an abused child, the Bible is not to be blamed for being the victim. As a civilization we owe a great deal to it, and even on its own, when we overlook the insensitive and sexist parts, it remains a literary masterpiece. Just over a year ago I visited a true friend I’ve known since high school. He is not a religious man, but in his living room, on a stand, stood open the Bible. It is more than a jingoistic symbol. Even the more we become aware of other great spiritual writings: the Rig Veda, the Tao Te Ching, the Gilgamesh Epic, we shouldn’t let the sublime messages from the Bible escape our notice. Even in this secular, workaday world, the words of the Sermon on the Mount often come to me, grand and resplendent. Parts of Isaiah still bring tears to my eyes. Writers from Shakespeare to Bradbury drew on its noble sentiments.

The Bible comes to mind when thinking of Martin Luther King, Jr. Our chronological spans overlapped by just five and a half years, but I followed him to Boston University School of Theology, walked the same corridors he did, meditated in the same chapel. Even then, some two decades after his martyrdom, his vision had not been fully realized. It still remains unfulfilled. At Brown University in May of last year, I was fortunate enough to be in the crowd when John Lewis received an honorary doctorate. His remarks to the crowd were humble, few, and profound. He said he never thought of the civil rights movement as a way to greatness. He was only trying to help. He admonished the affluent, the comfortable sitting on a hot Ivy League green, “Find a way to get in the way.” Injustice must come to end. The color, gender, sexual orientation, place of birth or financial status of no person should ever be used to judge her or him. With remarks I’ve heard about President Obama, most vulgarly on Facebook, we still have a long, long journey ahead of us.

In a day when the internet weaves millions of people into a fabric that should remind us we are all part of a whole, some still insist that their shading, location, or special pedigree make their part of the cloth the most valuable. Even as revolutions against injustice—something with which Americans especially should sympathize—take place in “backward” nations by using social media, we in the “first world” still judge one another by the origins of our ancestry and the mythical superiority of our skin tones. The greatest asset the United States offers to the world is its unique blend of people from everywhere. Our country demonstrates what can happen when people from every continent put their minds and wills together to work for the common good. This clashes with the biblical brand of separatism, I know. But even Isaiah, even if it is in his third incarnation, reminds us, “Also the sons of the stranger, that join themselves to the Lord, to serve him, and to love the name of the Lord, to be his servants, every one that keepeth the sabbath from polluting it, and taketh hold of my covenant; Even them will I bring to my holy mountain, and make them joyful in my house of prayer: their burnt offerings and their sacrifices shall be accepted upon mine altar; for mine house shall be called an house of prayer for all people.”

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Who Inherits What Now?

Grading exams is not my favorite activity, so when forced into it by psychopomp and circumstance, I attempt to select appropriate axe-wielding music to accompany the venture. My music collection is modest, so often I have to go back to the classic eras of rock for something that fits the mood. Recently I selected Rush’s 2112. I have a long, if tangential connection to this album. Afraid of its pentagram imagery and heavy metal sound (to my young ears) when it came out in the mid 70s, I only listened to it when my older brother put it on the stereo, and then only furtively enjoying it. Looking back now, I often wonder how any of us survived the 70’s styles and outlook — they feel dingy and hopeless in many corners, while sloppy and simplistic in others. Some of the music, however, has proven timeless.

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After the instrumental prelude, the first words on the album are from the Bible: “the meek shall inherit the earth.” This particular statement is among the most easily ignored in the Gospels, just as the meek are easily ignored on the earth. With all the trumpeting and bellowing that sound from self-righteous commentators beating their religion beneath them like an over-taxed war-horse, it is plain to see how the meek might simply get in the way. This particular verse from the Sermon on the Mount, however, is one of the reasons that I cannot give up all faith in traditional religions. It sets the perfect juxtaposition between greed and selflessness out in full light for all to assess. Thus say the priests of the temples of Syrinx.

There was a time when rock became self-righteous to the point of caricature; but Rush’s 2112 was not such a place. The meek inheriting the earth is sticking it to the man unlike any other biblical dart can. And it is probably a good thing to queue up when I’m having to face the onerous task of grading exams once again.