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.”