Shepherding Lies

They’re going to look pretty ridiculous when this is all over.  Like sheep without a shepherd.  Evangelicals, I mean.  The fact is they’ve jettisoned everything they stood for to support a pseudo-president constitutionally incapable of telling the truth and now they must be wondering about what they’ve lost along the way.  Stories in “liberal” sources such as The Washington Post, The New York Times, and The Atlantic have raised the question repeatedly—why don’t Evangelicals hold Trump to the same standard they hold all other people?  His backing and filling have been obvious to anyone capable of thought, and yet the bestselling books in America for the past two weeks have been tomes about how the liberals are lying.  What’s an Evangelical to do when truth has lost its meaning?

While I was still an Evangelical, in college, we debated endlessly how to get at Truth with a capital “T.”  No matter how you sliced it, diced it, or even julienned it, Truth had to come from the Bible somehow.  Two things the Good Book was against unequivocally were lying and adultery.  Who’d have thought Southern Baptists would be standing in line to change divine law, by their own definition?  And for what purpose?  To support a man who clearly doesn’t share their values, and shows it daily.  These former Communist-haters now cozy up to Russia with a familiarity that suggests Trump isn’t the only one sleeping around.  As a former Evangelical, I have to wonder whatever happened to the concept of the double standard.  This was never considered right or fair or biblical.  Now it’s all three.

Just this past week the Washington Post ran a story about an Evangelical pastor preaching a series of sermons on the Ten Commandments.  Somehow they’ve made their way from courthouse lawns into churches, it seems.  The week he reached adultery, he didn’t know what to say to his Trump-supporting flock.  He himself supports a leader whose told an average of hundreds of lies per day since January of last year.  Among them allegations that he didn’t commit adultery.  Or pay to have it covered up.  Or know that his lawyer had paid to cover it up.  But when said lawyer realizes that the shepherd doesn’t care about sheep—can’t even find one in a paddock—he suddenly remembers that there is Truth with a capital “T.”  But Evangelicals don’t have to listen to anyone named Cohen.  After all, they have wool in their ears.  Just don’t read what the Good Book says about hearing what you want to hear.  What’ve they lost?  Not just their shepherd, but their very souls.


In God’s Name

If anyone ever bothers to go through my personal zibaldones (if the word’s unfamiliar, please use the search box for my post on it) they’ll find my personal shorthand. It’s not extensive since I’m a firm believer in explaining things and if I don’t write things out I often can’t decipher what I meant. One of the shorthand marks that I do use is the Greek letter theta. Those who know me will have no trouble guessing that it stands for “God.” Or more appropriately, “theos” the Greek word for God. This particular Indo-European lexeme has a venerable history and appears in such forms as deus, Zeus, and deity. Although in a case such as Zeus it can be used as a personal name, it is, in fact, a title. Somewhat like “president” used to be. And it can be used for any number of divinities.

In the Bible there exists a well-placed concern not to dis the Almighty. God—to use his title—had a temper and was known for not being afraid to show it. Among the Ten Commandments is one not to take God’s name in vain. Scholars argue over what exactly that means, but Judaism, on the ground, had to make decisions about it in a practical way. The best way to avoid divine wrath was never to say the divine name at all. God’s name isn’t “God.” That’s a universal word, applicable to any garden variety divinity. God’s personal name, we think, was Yahweh. To ensure the keeping of the commandment whenever this noun was encountered in the Good Book, the word “Lord” was used. That’s the convention behind Lord in small caps in some Bible translations. If you don’t say the name you can’t break the commandment.

In more recent days, in print culture, a further caution has been introduced. In academic writing it’s common to see “G-d.” I can guess the origins of this convention, but I have to admit that concern can lead to obfuscation. Nowhere does Scripture proclaim that you can’t use the title of the ineffable one. I can’t help but think this is following the conservative tendency to see the use of “God” in exasperation as swearing. The fact that another common swear abbreviates itself as “G. d.” might caution against using this particular combination in an effort to preserve the sanctity of the title. No one ever doubted that Baal was a god—but note the carefully lower case “g”—or for that matter, Mars or Zeus. Or, just to be safe, B-l, M-rs, and Z-s. May I suggest, based on personal experience, that theta might be used instead? But only if referring to the true G-d.


Defining Evangelicals

Like most Americans I have trouble getting over the button-down image of Evangelicals that has now become so distinctive. In reality Evangelicalism has nothing to do with Jesus, but it comes down to basically two things: a conservative haircut and belief in the superiority of males. The latter point is made by Rodney Hessinger and Kristen Toby in an opinion piece on Cleveland.com. Asking the question that’s on all logical minds—how can Evangelicals stand by a president who credibly cheated on his wife just after their child was born?—they come to the conclusion that patriarchy trumps all forms of righteousness. I know this from sad personal experience. The Bible, Evangelicals claim, gives men the headship of the household. They may sin, yes, but even with that their lordship must remain intact. That is the non-negotiable fact of Evangelicalism.

I was a teenage Evangelical. I grew up in a household where my mother refused to divorce her alcoholic husband because it was against Evangelical teaching. Sexual sins were well nigh unforgivable. In fact, adultery, of which 45 has credibly been accused, was a death-penalty offense according to the Good Book. About the only thing worse than sexual sins way lying. I can’t believe I’m getting old school on Evangelicalism, but I have to say Fundamentalism isn’t what it used to be. In college I knew people who believed we should reinstitute stoning for adultery. Instead we now use it as an excuse to elect unqualified presidents. And yes, we’d like to keep the brand, thank you. Commandments have now become negotiable.

Our society is very sick. Unlike the narrative Evangelicals weave, the illness is within them. Divorce rates are higher among Evangelicals than among atheists. Evangelicals are more likely to own guns than Unitarians. Evangelicals will lie more readily than any agnostic. Some of the more extreme want to reintroduce slavery. Through it all they claim to follow the Bible. Their support of Trump has given the lie to what they claim as a religious faith. Even Jesus, meek and mild, had harsh words to say about adultery. This is something you just don’t do. Promise your faith to one woman until a porn star comes to play at your resort—I don’t recall that being in Scripture anywhere. Evangelicalism hasn’t lost its soul, it’s lost its mind. Given what they’re doing in his name, Jesus must be rolling over in his grave.


Commandments by Committee

Something about the holiday season seems to bring out atheistic activism, or at least media interest in atheism. Now that we’re safely in 2015, I suspect things will quiet down a bit until the next major religious holiday comes along. Ironically, since I was a child I’ve heard about how secular Christmas, in particular, has become. Reactions to this have led to “Christmas wars” that give the lie to sleeping in heavenly peace. In any case, back in December CNN ran a story on the atheist ten commandments. This was just before the holidays, but just after the release of Exodus: Gods and Kings, so it was a story sure to capture human interest. The atheist commandments were chosen by a committee, and, of course, have no binding value. Many of them are more precepts than commandments since, it seems, you need a deity to command all of humanity. Nevertheless, the number 7 commandment has a very biblical sound: “Treat others as you would want them to treat you, and can reasonably expect them to want to be treated.”

More interesting than the list, in my way of thinking, is the form of delivery. The ten commandment format is an obviously religious one. Atheists have long tried to make the case that non-belief is not the same as immorality, and there can be little doubt that this is correct. One need not believe in order to be a good person. Yet, the force of the symbolic ten commandments comes from a divine mandate. Committees, as efficient as they may be, don’t have the same kind of authority. You can hear it now—“Why should I listen to you? Who are you to tell me what to do?” With God there is always the threat of eternal damnation or the sending of plagues. Commandments by committee appeal to reason.

The ten commandments—here I mean the traditional ones—haven’t fared especially well among the faithful. Survey after survey shows many people don’t know all ten well enough to cite them. Some, such as the one against coveting, are hard to demonstrate or prove one way or the other. Honoring parents, in some extreme cases, seems sinful in itself. What doesn’t count as a graven image? So my question is, who has the authority in a post-Christian world to give commandments? The religious certainly won’t take advice from atheists, and religious leaders disagree among themselves about what the deity demands. No committee, it seems, can capture the true essence of divine demands. Perhaps it is a matter of boiling the ten down to one (similar to number 7 cited above) and getting our leaders to truly believe this before imposing it on all.

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Behind the Exodus

Over this past week two of my friends/colleagues were quoted in major media outlets about Exodus: Gods and Kings. Being merely a blogger with nearly two decades of teaching Hebrew Bible means, naturally, that I have nothing valuable to say. Nevertheless, I would meekly venture to make my own observations and cast them out there into the world-wide web and see what happens. I haven’t seen the movie since it only opens tomorrow. I already know it is only loosely based on the Bible. Still, I wonder at the talking heads who constantly declare the Bible to be irrelevant to a throughly modern world. Okay, so I realize that this is about money, but Manhattan is often seen to be one of the more sophisticated cultural landmarks in the country. This summer I couldn’t walk more than a book or two without being inundated with Noah posters. Now I am finding the same with Exodus paraphernalia. If we try to put the Bible away, it seems, it will come to find us.

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The Bible, relevant or not, is full of great baseline stories. Even in a secular society we can see the appeal of Noah and his menagerie to young children who are so fascinated with animals. We decorate youngsters’ sleepwear and toys with elephants and lions and giraffes (interestingly not mentioning that these are primarily African animals) aboard an ark with an unfailingly cheerful Noah. Now we have another classic—the great liberation story (also set in Africa) of a people held in bondage being released by divine command. We are a post-Christian society, according to the pundits, so who this divine one is remains an open question. The idea that one people is kept oppressed by another people, however, is presented as unequivocally wrong. Moses rides out on a horse, weapons in hand. Are we not focusing on the larger point yet?

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This latest love affair with the Bible as a source of great cinematography will not last forever. It will surely ebb away until only a few old blog posts might remain to remind us there was a time when Holy Writ inspired screen writers and directors. Nevertheless, the Bible bides its time. Back in the days when I used to teach Hebrew Bible Hollywood didn’t do too much to help out. Students had to slog through pages of picture-less Bibles to get the gist of the what God had in mind. The results may not be the same from those comfy seats in movie theaters, but a future generation will come to see Charlton Heston as a white man who loved guns being overcome by a newer generation of producers and directors who know there is a larger story here. Of course, I’m only a blogger with no credentials. Still I know what I see on the streets of the city.


Greece Lightning Rod

Eds and op-eds are popping over the Supreme Court decision to allow sectarian prayer at Greece, New York town council meetings. Some citizens complained that the prayers made them feel disrespected and excluded. Who hasn’t from time to time? I’m no advocate of government-sponsored religion, but I do wonder how we can live in a society in which the mere mention of God offends some as much as the “f word” offends others. Are we, perchance, getting a little thin-skinned? After several long years of neo-con rule, we have learned that opposition is a form of treason, and that conflicting opinions cannot coexist. As an erstwhile teacher of religion, the implications make me shiver. Isn’t the point of learning about religion to train people in toleration? If I sued every time I was offended, I’d be the richest man in the country.

Ironically, the United States is one of the rare cases of a developed, “first world” nation where skirmishes over religion often and vocally take center stage. We have, as a society, dismantled the apparatus of dispassionate, scholarly discussion of religion (“no need for it,” “budget can’t afford it,” “superstition and nonsense”) and wonder why it always brings us to verbal blows. Religion is that which we can’t define, but we can surely fight about. We’re offended by public prayers, the wearing of hijab, and idols to the Ten Commandments on the courthouse lawn. Religion, like sex, is relegated to private places only, but for diametrically opposed reasons. What are we so afraid of?

Lost in the clutter.

Lost in the clutter.

We have no trouble when someone with private money spends it to introduce religion into the public sphere. You can walk down the street in Manhattan and see crosses outside churches and “Jesus saves” scrawled in the cement of well-trod sidewalks. Nobody seems to be offended. Finding practitioners of the “exotic” religions of Hinduism, Buddhism, Sikhism, Vodou, Theosophy, and Scientology is hardly a challenge in a city of millions. Over what is there anything to be offended? I’m offended by those with too much money keeping everyone else below them because the law says that they can. I’m offended by those who pollute our common environment because they can afford lawyers to find loopholes. I’m offended by those who use their religion to oppress women and non-believers. Those who want to pray to a god, any god, before a civil meeting, as long as that god demands nothing from non-believers, aren’t hurting anyone but those who never learned to agree to disagree.


The Devil Made

Some things you just don’t mess with. Just in case. For a variety of reasons, not least of which is lack of biblical support, many Christians no longer believe in Satan, or “the Devil.” As I written before, the Hebrew Bible has no such diabolical character and he seems to have been devised from an old Zoroastrian dualistic belief system when he finally does appear. In other words, Satan is not among the core beliefs of the Judeo-Christian tradition. Nevertheless, according to an Associated Press story the Satanic Temple is petitioning to have a statue of Satan placed on the capitol grounds in Oklahoma City. The action was prompted by the placing of a Ten Commandments monument in this public space, and, invoking the freedom of religion clause, the Satanic Temple has decided to play tit for tat. Either religion is free, or it’s not.

Backer_Judgment_(detail)Although the Satanic Temple claims to be sincere in its beliefs, the group’s website indicates that it understands religious belief in a metaphorical way, and that it wishes to parse superstition from religion. This envisions revising Satan as an “icon for the selfless revolt against tyranny,” according to the AP story. The commissioned monument includes a Baphomet-style Satan (goat head and beard, wings and pentagram—you get the picture), that features—sure to raise the ire of Oklahomo sapiens—children gathered around the dark lord. It will double as a seat where individuals may sit on Satan’s lap, although I’m not sure what they might be asking for. Various representatives of the Sooner State say they’re all for religious freedom, but Satan just has no place in the conservative breadbasket of the nation.

Provocation occurs on both sides in this trial of wills. Justice can be realized without Moses’ top ten on every courthouse lawn. The Code of Hammurabi demonstrates that. People are capable of enacting justice without God, or the Devil, telling them to do it. The triumphalism of religion is the heart of the issue. In a world daily aware of those outside the neighborhood, finding that other religions exist and thrive is an affront to the “one true faith,” whatever it may be. It may be that Jews, Christians, and Muslims have no problems with the ten commandments. Other religions might. Leading with having “no other gods before me” starts the conversation off on an awkward tone. The solution may be as simple as amending the commandments to add just one more. If we can see our way to doing that I have one that I’d like to propose: “thou shalt not let thy religion cause childish behavior.”


Imagine Images

“Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.” Thus spake the Lord one day long ago. So the Bible says. The problem is that humans are visually oriented. We teach our young to read by enticing them with books with pretty pictures—images that captivate. We make things that are pleasant to see, some of them are even graven. I used to ask my students what the difference was between a god and an idol. The answer is, of course, perception. “Idol” is a word that implies falsehood. The item represented is somehow divine, but is not actually divine. There are ways around the rules, of course.

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I spent many years in the United Methodist Church. Many people I knew claimed that the local Catholics were idol worshippers, and when I entered a Catholic church for the first time I was struck by the graven images that seemed to stand in blatant contradiction to the second commandment. How could this not be a direct violation of divine orders? After all, this wasn’t some minor infraction—it was one of the very commandments! Back in my Methodist context, I began to wonder, however. We had crosses, some of them in the round, right up there on the altar. True, there was no corpus on our crucifix, but that seemed to be a handy bit of casuistry. Human beings naturally convert images to idols. We all knew, Protestants though we were, that you should never take a sacred object out to the streets and treat it profanely. An image in a sacred venue could be an idol.

Over the years it seems that the strictures of the ten commandments might have been relaxed just a little. Collectively as a culture, the real has become more and more virtual. We buy our movies, music and books in electronic format. We play our games on computers. In such a context a physical image may seem somehow less real. Our idols have been digitized. It doesn’t seem like the Bible was looking that far ahead when attempting to create an exhaustive list of what might anger the divine. After all, electricity wouldn’t be discovered for millennia. Reality was dry, dusty, and deadly. The prohibition was against physical images. It is no longer an issue for many in the Judeo-Christian tradition that a statue or an icon might be a sign of piety rather than profanity. Things seem to have come full circle when I find a statue of John Wesley, nearly of bobble-head proportions, looking at me with eyes seeking prevenient grace. I guess the powers that be might just be willing to overlook even Methodists gone native.

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A Theistic Nation

That’s a dill-pickillial of a peccadillo, if you’ll pardon my Ned Flanderism. I’m referring to the issue of the Supreme Court dealing with public prayer. Again. In a recent Chicago Tribune story, prayer before town board meetings in Greece, New York have led to accusations of violation of citizens’ rights. In a similar, but unrelated, situation, a friend asked me what I thought about religious symbols on public property. He asked the basic question that if atheism relies on no symbols, isn’t the absence of symbolism tacit approval of atheism. These issues are very difficult to resolve for a number of reasons. The first non-partisan elephant in the room is the fact that we do not have an acceptable definition of religion. Universities shy away from hiring specialists in religion and we, as a society, and, more restrictively, as an academy, can’t agree on what religion is. Is atheism a religious belief system? Some would argue that it is, and that it shouldn’t be the default stance—that would favor one religion. From what neuroscience seems to tell us, atheists aren’t born, they’re made. Religion, of some description, is normal human thinking.

A further issue involves both symbols and prayers. A symbol means nothing without interpretation. As I told my friend, unintentional crosses are ubiquitous. You might have to look a bit harder to find unintentional stars of David or yin-yangs, but I’m certain they exist. Without the Christian eye, however, those unintentional crosses are just architectural features or natural spaces between corners. The same applies to prayer. If I decide to speak, it is a matter of interpretation whether my words are prayers, a guy talking to himself, or, increasingly, somebody chatting on their blue tooth phone as they walk past a church. Intention, a specific aspect of interpretation, certainly plays into the sometimes coercive power of a symbol or a prayer. Do those Ten Commandments on the courthouse lawn just represent a nice piece of art, or do they bear an intended message? Do intended messages not attempt to persuade others that they are true?

Smart folk like Supreme Court justices have difficulty with this issue every time. I’m not surprised. We don’t know how to quantify religion, even though most of us are pretty sure of it when we see it. Some would argue that many eastern religions are in fact philosophies. Some would claim that atheism is the opposite of religion. Atheism is not so very far from some strains of Buddhism, however. And like it or not, people are all subject to belief. We seem to like forging ahead in the darkness on this issue. State universities hide their religious studies programs like embarrassing warts. What rational person would want to waste time studying such superstition? The Supreme Court of the United States, I might point out, just for one.

Religion or not?

Religion or not?


Presumption Be Thy Name

I once dashed an email off to a colleague in a hurry. The email concerned, in some way, the Judeo-Christian deity, known in the Hebrew Bible by the tetragrammaton YHWH. Quite unintentionally, my harried fingers tapped out YWHW—an honest, if impious, mistake. My colleague, who happens to be Jewish, immediately pointed out my unintentional blasphemy—one more casualty of the computer age. Naturally, I apologized and life went on. (I try not to spin out the larger implications.) The point is, based on the third (some would say “second”) commandment, Judaism has strongly preserved the taboo on using the divine name at all. God’s name is spelled without vowels to prevent anyone from trying to say it, and when written with the vowels of the word “lord” (adonai) gives us the false form Jehovah. Casual use of the divine name is considered offensive, and some would say it’s swearing.

HebraicRootsBibleWhile on Amazon.com the other day—it is the site to which I go for solace; so many books! So many books!—I came across the Hebraic Roots Bible. Subtitled “A Literal Translation,” it was clear that this was yet another well-intentioned, but ill-fated attempt to make the definitive English translation of the Hebrew Bible. True, literal translation is a chimera. Languages are thought-systems and can only be approximated in other languages. Those who wish to read the Bible literally must become proficient in Hebrew and Greek, with a smattering of Aramaic. In any case, none of that caught my attention. Without a hint of irony, the author of this book was listed as Yahweh. In case you’ve been wondering why some prayers are going unanswered, you may have your answer here—the Almighty has been busy writing a book!

My first reaction was a coy smile. That is kind of a cute selling point. But then I realized there was likely no humor to it. This was probably understood to be read literally: Yahweh wrote this book. I wonder who he got to write the Foreword. My error to my Jewish colleague was, literally, unintentional. This was literally scary. Who would be bold enough to claim that their own interpretation was the word of I Am himself? Why did he wait until 2012 to publish it? Blasphemy comes in a variety of forms. While still at Routledge, one of my Jewish authors insisted that I strike the blasphemy clause (standard for many publishing contracts) from his agreement. “Who can write anything that isn’t considered blasphemy by somebody?” he reasonably asked. The thought comes back to me, looking at the Hebraic Roots Bible. The author’s name, after all, didn’t even make it onto the cover of the book.


Playing Civil

In a piece written for the Los Angeles Times, Joseph Margulies warns of the potential dangers of civil religion. I first learned about civil religion in college in the early 1980s, when the concept was still relatively young. The idea is as deceptively simple as it is accurate: when nationalism reaches its natural limits, the divine is invoked. Civic ceremonies become religious ceremonies—presidents lay hands on Bibles, whether or not they believe. Civil religion dictates that all presidents be portrayed as believers, but that is something we have to take on faith. Civil religion leads to sculptures of the Ten Commandments on courthouse lawns and the flying of United States flags in churches. The danger with this innocent-looking triumphalism is that some people take it too seriously. It is not limited to Christianity, either. Civil religion is a disguised, albeit thinly, form of nationalism.

The vast majority of people in the world hold religious beliefs without deep reflection. That is not to suggest that they don’t believe deeply, but simply that they don’t lift the edges to peer under the surface much. We are taught what to believe by religious specialists. To question them is to question the deity they represent. Since fear is easily ingrained in the human psyche, the angry god is among the most effective of weapons ever devised. We fear for our eternal peril, and it is easier to believe the clergy have the answers than to divine the truth for ourselves. Those who think profoundly about religion, outside the confines of the professional clergy, are always a suspect lot. What business do we have, poking around the beliefs of others?

Civil religion shocked me when I first learned of it. Like the majority of my peers, I had assumed that public displays of piety were to be taken literally. As I began to hang out with clergy and to see how they often transformed outside the church with a fellow “insider” beside them, I started to understand. The cynical asides whispered outside the hearing of the faithful, the double lifestyles, the on-stage personae. This may not have been civil religion, but it was not always what it seemed. Teaching in an Anglo-Catholic seminary, I saw high mass as carefully choreographed as an off-Broadway production of A Chorus Line. Civil religion relies on its partnership with the unquestioned belief of the Saturday-night and Sunday-morning crowd. It all fits easily together and runs as smoothly as a pink Cadillac. Just don’t look under the hood.

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Seems Reasonable

Florida is a state of contrasts. A news story from the Associated Press highlights that divergence. On the lawn of the Bradford County courthouse is a monument to the Ten Commandments that American Atheists sued, unsuccessfully, to have removed. In response to their legal defeat, they have placed their own monument to atheism alongside it. Well, what’ fair’s fair. Local reaction, according to the story, has been anything but positive. Nevertheless, I wonder what a monument to atheism must look like. The partial photographs reveal the atomic symbol-based American Atheists logo on top, and words on the sides. The monument, the story indicates, bears quotes from Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, and Madalyn Murray O’Hair, the last of whom was gruesomely murdered as an early martyr to the atheist cause. There are those who suggest that the atomism of Democritus in the fifth century BCE already tolled the death knell of the gods. Deities and very small particles, however, have continued to get along for the past 2500 years.

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David Silverman, the current president of American Atheists, is quoted as saying the monument is an attack on Christian privilege, not Christianity. This may seem a fine point, but it is valid. Most reasonable atheists have no difficulty granting freedom of religious belief to anyone (only the more radical members of the atheist camp suggest religion ought to be stamped out). Does that mean governments should not display monuments to Moses’s magnum opus but not to, say, that of Lao Tzu? Or, perhaps in this instance, Lucretius? It might appear to be over-protesting, but what would a Hindu’s thoughts be, should s/he be ushered past the statutes of a foreign god on the way to court?

One of the most difficult things for a person to do is envision their normal as another person’s weird. Religions that seem perfectly logical to those raised within them have a way of seeming unbelievable to those who encounter them as a part of an exotic culture. To me it is difficult to suppose anyone would see American culture as “exotic.” I mean, we’re talking Wal-Mart and MacDonald’s here. It seems pretty ordinary to me. When I take a mental step back a little further, however, I begin to see a nation of widely varying traditions. Little pockets of true culture punch through the plastic here and there, and the light that shines through can be brilliant at times. And if you happen to run afoul of the law while visiting, you might end up in a courthouse that not only advertises the Ten Commandments, but also has a monument to humanistic spirit as well.


Whirling Spirits

A photograph and video of a “fire tornado” in Australia have been lighting up the web the last few days. Well, technically there is no such thing as a fire tornado, although that term serves perfectly well as a colloquial expression for the phenomenon. Having spent several years studying vortices for a project on weather language in the Bible, I came to know tornados particularly intimately. Dust devils, caused by surface heating, look and act like tornados, but a true tornado is cloud-based. The fire tornado is probably better termed a “fire whirl” or a “fire devil”—an expression that has a particularly ominous tone. Such vortices occur in wildfires in other parts of the world as well, and they are, obviously, very dangerous. When my wife pointed out the comments on this site (which also has a photograph and a link to the video), however, the implications for a blog on religion became clear.

One of the points I made in my weather work was that severe weather is almost always attributed to God. The comments on boingboing affirm that the concept retains its currency. Now, reading comments on most websites reveals just how juvenile the web readership generally is. On many sites the comments are so annoying that even Spongebob Squarepants would seem an intellectual heavyweight by comparison with the writers. Nevertheless on boingboing, by comment seven God had been brought into the conversation. In this instance, reference was aptly made to the movie The Ten Commandments, with others chiming in that nature here far outdid Cecil B. DeMille’s efforts at a realistic fire devil to represent God. The comments then move on to the guiding of the Israelites by a pillar of fire in the wilderness. Intermingled with the biblical references are meteorological comments attempting to classify the whirl a bit more precisely.

When something out of the ordinary occurs, our default seems to be God. This in no way discounts the scientific discussion for what is really going on. The religion and science comments simply talk past one another—they have the same referent, but entirely different levels of engagement with it. Although not the scientific names, “devils” and “tornados” represent different, if visually similar, phenomena. Vortices seem natural on a round planet that follows a round orbit while rotating swiftly on its axis, and yet they remain comparatively rare. The name “dust devil” probably goes back to indigenous traditions associating the whirls with ghosts or spirits. For Christians encountering these concepts, heathen gods were devils (as is evident in the name Devil’s Lake, Wisconsin, named “Spirit Lake” by the Native Americans. The same applies to Devil’s Lake, North Dakota, but I haven’t been there.) It seems to me that these vortices neatly summarize religious sensibilities: an awe-inspiring event is one culture’s deity, another culture’s devil, and a third culture’s natural phenomenon empirically explained.

A real tornado


Close Commandments

Okay, so I’ll admit that Jeffrey Kripal’s Authors of the Impossible put me in the mood for Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Watching this movie always calls for an investment of time and some emotional energy since it does drag a bit and there are some ponderously majestic scenes that simply make me want to scream. As I powered up the old DVD player this weekend, however, I received an epiphany while watching the movie for the first time in years. Early on during Richard Dreyfuss’s breakdown, the kids (incongruously) gather around the television with excitement to watch the Ten Commandments. The reason, clearly, is that they want to stay up late, and even having to watch Cecil B. DeMille’s warhorse is an adequate excuse. I’ll admit that it was one of my motivations for watching the lush, but equally dull, Ten Commandments as a child. Yes, I took it to be a pious attempt to render God’s literally true memoirs into celluloid, but its 4-hour running time did promise to keep me out of bed until after ten.

Young Moses experiences a theophany.

As my wife and I watched Close Encounters over the weekend, I realized for the first time that much of the cinematography is based on the Ten Commandments. Dreyfuss is a visionary, a prophet, if you will. He is drawn to a sacred mountain (Devil’s Tower) where, like Moses, he makes his way up and down, unable to decide whether to enter the divine presence or not. One of the pacing problems in the book of Exodus is the mental image of an 80 year-old Moses laboriously making his way up and down Sinai as God sends him on various errands. I imagine the children of Israel having time to cast a whole herd of golden cattle. As the UFOs make their grand appearance somewhat near the end of Close Encounters Roy Neary (Dreyfuss) and Jillian Guiler climb the mountain, see the theophanic display, and start back down. Only to go up again. On their way to Devil’s Tower they drive by several dead animals, like those struck down in the fifth plague of Exodus. The army forcing the people out of the area is itself an exodus. The return of those kidnapped by the aliens is a kind of letting go of those held captive. Apparently the Egyptians and aliens have a long history anyway.

I have no idea if Steven Spielberg was intentionally modeling Close Encounters on the Ten Commandments, but corollaries are clearly there. 1977 had not yet witnessed the decline of Erich von Däniken’s star, catapulted into orbit by Chariots of the Gods? where once again we find God driving spaceships and giving the Egyptians a hand with those pesky pyramids. Even the surnames of the characters seem to be a play on their biblical roles. Roy Neary, the one who draws near to God, the only one selected to literally ascend to heaven at the end, and Jillian Guiler, whose suspicion keeps her earthbound with her son Barry, who bears an eerie resemblance to the childlike aliens whom he befriends. Berry is the movie’s Joshua, the one who will keep the faith alive for the next generation. The story came to Spielberg, according to the media, when he saw a meteor shower in New Jersey as a youth. I missed last week’s meteor shower in New Jersey, and my baby ark on the Nile never sailed.


Who’s to Say?

Stereotypes are so easy to fall into. Having been “typecast” myself, early in my career as a “seminary professor” and a “conservative”—neither of which matched my mental outlook at all—I eventually had to abandon higher education as a career option. Why did I take a job that didn’t fit? If you’re asking that question, obviously you missed the 1990s. It was a brutal time to be looking for a job; there was this recession… wait a minute. What decade was I writing about again? In any case, many people will always remember me in the various roles I’ve played as I sought to actualize my ideal career. It is always interesting to see how others break out of their expected roles into new venues. Penn Jillette of Penn & Teller has established a reputation for speaking his mind. To those with limited experience, such as myself, he is stereotyped as a “magician,” more specifically, a “bad boy magician” who gives away the secrets of the guild. To find out that he is a writer was a kind of epiphany.

I read his new memoir/confession, God, No! this past week. I’ve always been cognizant of the strangeness of a world where someone may speak authoritatively on the basis of star status, but Americans love their performers. I’ve enjoyed the Penn & Teller acts I’ve seen on television, and after reading Penn’s book, I think I would like him in person. I can’t agree with him much of the time, but his honesty and good moral sense are very winning. I seriously cannot remember the last time I read a book that made me snort out loud with laughter or try to sink even lower on public transit so the polite person sitting next to me would not be able to see all the profanity on the pages before me. The book itself very loosely follows the Ten Commandments, which, surprisingly, the author largely agrees with in principle. The essays are all over the place, but the libertarian spirit is difficult not to admire. His appreciation of rational explanations for the world is admirable.

Probably the most difficult point of agreement for me, however, is his definition of an atheist as anyone who do not know if God exists. He does have a chapter lambasting agnostics, but as a stickler (as much as anyone in religious studies can be a stickler about anything) for definitions, it is useful to distinguish atheism and agnosticism. Saying one does not know is not the same as declaring one is certain. Since the existence of God can be neither proven nor disproven, those who say God does not exist believe that assertion. Those who say God exists also believe their assertion. Objective knowledge, in our current state, is not possible. I had to agree, in the final chapter, that faith causes most of the problems we find associated with religion, but I’m afraid faith is a huge part of the human condition. God, No! is not for everyone. Those who read it will, nevertheless, find an author as convinced as any evangelist that he’s right. And if they are honest, they will have to admit to having laughed along the way.