Shifting Perspectives

Perspective.  The ability to change it is vital to understanding.  I’ve been working with the idea of demons for a few years now.  My perspective, however, has been aided by Nancy Caciola’s Discerning Spirits: Divine and Demonic Possession in the Middle Ages.  Noting something that has long been a puzzle—behaviors attributed to saints were also recognized among the demonically possessed—Caciola suggests a solution.  In the Middle Ages very few female saints were canonized.  Delving into records from the period Caciola noticed that when saintly behaviors exhibited by men were experienced by women those behaviors were deemed demonic.  In other words, from a perspective that saw masculine experience as normative, when supernatural events were encountered in women they were seen as diabolical.  Using Hildegard of Bingen’s frame of an “effeminate age,” Discerning Spirits explores the idea of how the Medievals told good from evil.

 My own experience of “discerning spirits” came about through a United Methodist curricular study on spiritual gifts.  I was in either junior or senior high school, and deeply involved in the church.  An adult study (I was close enough) on spiritual gifts explained the laundry list compiled by Paul in 1 Corinthians 12.  The apostle from Tarsus notes that discerning spirits is a divine gift.  I trembled as a teen, wondering if I might possibly have it (that was the point of the study).  It seemed like an immense responsibility.  The issue, it turns out, was nothing new.  Since codified in the Bible it had to be true, but what was it all about?  Smarter people than me were struggling with it.

There’s plenty of provocative and explanatory information in Discerning Spirits.  From ancient times it was understood that gods could possess people.  By the New Testament demons clearly could too.  We hear less and less about divine possession as time goes on.  In fact, it becomes a kind of heresy in itself.  Demonic possession was never really in doubt.  It fell out of favor with the Enlightenment, but it didn’t really disappear.  This book shows a clear trajectory from women’s possession as being demonic straight toward the witch craze that erupted in Europe toward the end of the Middle Ages.  It was no coincidence that the majority of accused witches were female.  The perspective had shifted with the fortunes of the church during the Medieval period.  Fear of schism and fear of unsupervised spirituality in a world where only men could be priests led to results that, in hindsight, look inevitable.  Caciola’s book is an important source for not only ages past, but also a mindset all too prevalent in our present world.

United, We Divide

I was a teenage Methodist.  Or, I should say, a teenage United Methodist.  My family had moved to a town where there were no Fundamentalist churches.  Indeed, the only Protestant church was the UMC.  Although very aware of religion, I hadn’t studied it deeply at that point—I’ve come to understand a bit better the marketplace of Christianties and how it works in a capitalist society.  The thing is, the more I learned about John Wesley and the Methodist movement, the more I saw how well it aligned with my own thinking and experience.  I became an Episcopalian largely because John Wesley never left that tradition and urged his followers in the same direction.  Of course, the “United” in United Methodism was due to mergers during the ecumenical period when Christians were learning to overlook differences and a strong base remained from which to draw.

The news has come out that the United Methodist Church has decided to split over the issue of homosexuality.  Most major Protestant denominations have made their peace, albeit uneasily, with the issue.  They recognized that while a source of guidance in spiritual matters the Bible’s a little outdated on its scientific understanding.  If God had revealed evolution to good old Moses things might’ve been a bit different.  We now know that homosexuality isn’t a “choice”—it is found in nature, and not rarely.  Homo sapiens (if I’m allowed to use that phrase) have developed in such a way that sexuality is a main preoccupation of religions.  Some animal species are monogamous and in our case many cultures adopted this as conducive to an ordered society.  Then it became codified in some sacred writings.

While homosexuality is mentioned in the Bible, every book of that Bible has a context.  Like it or not, close, serious study of Scripture raises questions you just don’t get if you read only authors who think the same way you do.  It is far easier to do that—who doesn’t like being right?—but thinking seldom gains credibility by never being challenged.  Iron sharpens iron, someone once said.  The emotion behind the issue, I suspect, is driven by a couple of things: fear of that which is different, and the inability to see the Bible as anything but “da rules.”  In those cases where the rules contradict one another you just have to choose.  At least in Christianity.  In Judaism they ended up with the Talmud.  In any case, we’re now seeing the fracturing of society based on party lines.  We could always use a few more choices, I guess, for competition is what spiritual capitalism is all about.

Glossophobia

For a guy so full of phobias that there’s no elbow room at Hotel Fear in my head, people are sometimes curious as to why I don’t suffer one of the most common sources of terror: speaking in front of crowds.  Glossophobia is extremely normal.  I suspect it’s one of evolutions tricks for keeping metaphorical cooks out of the allegorical kitchen.  If we’re all talking at once, who can be heard?  The internet will prove to be some kind of experiment in that regard, I expect.  Thing is, I’m not what most public speakers appear to be: confident.  I’m not.  Beneath the surface all kinds of phobias are vying for the next private room to become available.  Over the weekend I had a public speaking engagement, and that made me consider this again—why doesn’t it bother me?

Although the answer to “why” questions will always remain provisional, I have an idea.  It’s kind of creepy, but true.  In my fundamentalist upbringing, I was taught that my life was being taped.  You see, it goes like this: since the book of Hebrews says “And as it is appointed unto men once to die, but after this the judgment,” some Fundies like Jack Chick illustrated this as an outdoor cinema in Heaven.  Or rather, in the clouds just outside Heaven.  Here you’d be summoned, buck naked, as soon as you died.  Other nude souls would gather round the big screen and your entire life would be projected for all to see.  Since everyone’s dead there are apparently no time constraints.  As a kid I realized that I was being watched.  All the time.  Now, I’m not conscious of this constantly, but I did translate it to public appearances.  We’re all, it seems, actors.

With a lifetime of performing experience, by the time I was a teen I wasn’t afraid of public speaking.  Introspection was a big part of my psyche, and when I had a speaking engagement, I knew that I had to be conscious of what I did and said, because people would be watching me.  I learned to play the part.  I did take a college course in public speaking, and even a preaching course offered by the Western Pennsylvania Conference of the United Methodist Church, but both of these were long after I’d begun taking public speaking roles.  I make mistakes, of course, and early on I learned to laugh at them before the audience did.  We were all being taped, after all, and there’s no outtake reel before the pearly gates.  Strange, but true.  If you’re afraid to speak in public just remember—you’re being watched, all the time.

You Call That Working?

A recent post of mine on the United Methodist Church got a lot of response (for me, anyway) on other social media.  As I pondered this—I’ve written about the topic many times before—it occurred to me that most people probably have no idea what biblical scholars do all day.  (That is, besides write books that only other biblical scholars read, and teach their classes, or, very occasionally, edit books.)  Biblical studies is arguably one of the oldest academic pursuits in the world and what it boils down to in a word is “contexts.”  We try to understand the multiple contexts of the biblical texts.  Think about this a second: when you pick up a book, newspaper, magazine, or their electronic equivalents, what is the first, if often unconscious, thought you have?  Isn’t it something like “what kind of book, newspaper, etc., is this?”  Is it fiction or non?  Is it reputable or not?  Who wrote it and when?  These are all contexts.

The Bible was written about two millennia ago.  Very little of that original context still remains.  In fact, none of the original manuscripts even still exist.  It was a book written in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek.  The vast majority of people in the western world do not read these languages, and so the Bible comes to us in mediated form—translation.  Translation, as any writer knows, is a form of interpretation.  It is not, and can never be, the original.  To figure out what the Bible “means” it has to be interpreted—even just reading it is a form of interpretation.  Biblical scholars want to be able to interpret it in informed ways.  We learn about its various contexts and use them to help us understand.

What did people think like thousands of years ago?  Can you even remember what it was like to look up a distant location without the internet?  Writing letters or dialing a rotary phone to get information on it?  Going to triple A to get maps?  And all of that was only two decades ago.  Life in biblical times was very different than life today.  The people then didn’t understand science the way that we do.  The writers of the Good Book didn’t have any idea that what they were scribbling would one day be considered holy scripture.  They had completely different contexts.  Whether the contexts are historical, literary, or social scientific (we still haven’t figured out an elegant way of saying the latter) biblical scholars use a variety of methods to get to those contexts.  We can’t go in with the answers already in our heads—if we did we’d only find what we were looking for.  At the end we have an answer, not “the” answer.  And so biblical studies continues.

Christianity sans Christ

Pieter Breughel the elder

“He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her.”  (Please pardon the sexist translation, but the King James is in the public domain.)  That verse, and many others, have been going through my head since my former United Methodist Church decided to close its doors to those who are different.  The reason this verse sticks out is pretty obvious—according to the Good Book we’re all sinners.  The “Christianity” that the UMC has embraced is that of Paul, not that of Jesus.  In fact, Jesus seems to have exited, stage left.  You see, only with a great deal of casuistry of exegetical caliber can anyone claim that Jesus (aka God) said anything about homosexuality.  Not a single word.  His response in the famous story of an adulteress (what of the adulterer who partnered in her crime?) caught in flagrante delicto, he gave our opening quote.

At one point Peter, exasperated with his master’s kindness, sputtered how many times did he have to forgive—seven times?  More like seven times seventy.  The one without sin has itchy fingers where stones are abundant.  Once at Nashotah House we had a student from Kenya.  He was already a priest, and he had a family back home.  At one point I asked him about his wife.  He informed me that his brother now had her as wife while he was gone.  It was the way of their culture.  This same student—for we are all students all the time—had harsh words for American sexual practices.  He later tried to find a way to stay in the United States, leaving family behind.  The Bible may turn a blind eye to polygamy, but polyandry is definitely stone-worthy.  Who is without sin?

Ironically the UMC has lined up against the Gospels.  Christianity’s sexual hangups began with the apostle from Tarsus, not the carpenter from Nazareth.  We have been forced to see, time and again, what comes of making priests remain celibate.  It’s against nature, and none of us has a free hand to grope for a stone.  Instead, we queue up ready to judge.  Love, the church says, is wrong.  God, says the Gospel, is love.  There’s a mansion with many rooms above our heads.  We’re not told if the doors come with locks or not.  Unless this seem unnaturally profane, anyone who has truly loved another knows it is more than just a physical act.  Such spiritual intimacy is difficult to spread too thinly without cheapening it to the point of a tawdry sit-com.  Even then, however, we shouldn’t judge.  There aren’t stones enough in the world for that.

The Dots

Connections have always fascinated me.  Maybe it’s because life is a random stream of stuff constantly thrown at you that makes a mockery of any plans you might try to implement.  Me at Nashotah House?  Really?  Nevertheless, these events shape us and everything that happens thereafter is seen in light of them.  So when connections occur amid this continual flux, I sit up and take notice.  For example, I had never thought of moving to eastern Pennsylvania.  Now, around Christmastime, I find myself not far from Bethlehem.  Bethlehem was so named because it was founded on Christmas Eve by Moravians who’d settled in the area.  Although not counted among the most numerous of Protestants today, Moravians had a profound effect on the founder of Methodism, John Wesley.  In fact, he met Count Zinzendorf, whose name appears on this handsome plaque in historic downtown Bethlehem, at a pivotal moment in his own spiritual journey.

Having grown up Fundamentalist, the United Methodist Church would not have been our choice, although we had unwittingly attended one of the Methodist offshoots—the Church of the Nazarene—from time to time.  In one of those unplanned things, we found ourselves in Rouseville, Pennsylvania, where the only Protestant church was United Methodist.  Once ensconced in the UMC it was my plan to become a minister in that tradition.  That led me to Boston University School of Theology where I first learned about the Wesley-Zinzendorf connection.  It was also there that I met my wife.  And subsequently joined the Episcopal Church.  Why?  John Wesley had been adamant that his followers not drop out of the church in which he was an ordained priest.  I was only following instructions.

Had that not happened I would never have had my first, and so far only, full-time academic job.  Nashotah House was conservative, and I was not.  We nevertheless had a connection.  Growing up I’d barely heard of Wisconsin, let alone planned to live there.  When Nashotah no longer required my services my career had to change as well.  None of this was in the plan.  Who plans to move to New Jersey?  And now everyone thinks of me as an editor, a fallback position if there ever was one.  Since I work in New York City, moving back to my native Pennsylvania wasn’t really on the agenda.  An outside agent led to that.  So I find myself near Bethlehem in the Christmas season, staring at Count Zinzendorf’s name, which I first heard of in a seminary now far away.  Connections, even with those long gone, are always worth noting.

Neologism

I like a good neologism as much as the next guy. Oxford English Dictionaries recently released a covey of new words added to the famed lexicon. Most of them, it seemed to me, had to do with dangers of technology, like “drunk text” and such fare. Still, increasing vocabulary is one of those rare joys in life that is continues to be free, so I indulge. A friend sent me a BBC story about another new word: champing. Well, my spell-check recognizes that one so maybe it’s not new. In any case, this champing is derived from two words “church” and “camping.” Some locations with medieval churches—which kind of rules out anything on these shores—are now opening them up as camping spots, thus church-camping. The article asks what it’s like to stay overnight in such a place.

Growing up in western Pennsylvania, medieval churches were hard to find, but I spent more than one night sleeping in sacred spaces. It’s an uncanny experience. In what may have been more innocent days, our United Methodist Church allowed youth group sleepovers, as long as there were counselors present. (Ever naive, I only learned later that there were ways around such obvious strictures.) On a Friday night, then, we could occasionally gather with our sleeping bags and slumber under the sanctuary. For theological reasons we couldn’t sleep in the sanctuary itself (although that couldn’t be prevented on the occasional very long sermon) but we could go in. Churches are scary at night with the lights out. We may give lip service to holy ground, but large, cavernous spaces suggest so much by absence and implication that it would take a stout soul indeed to sleep there.

Looks okay from the outside.

Sleeping in sanctuaries in ancient times was an acceptable practice. In fact, there’s a name for doing so: incubation rituals. A person who slept in a sacred place believed any dreams had that night were a message from God. Knowing the dreams I tend to have, I do wonder. Once, at the United Methodist camp called Jumonville—famous for its large white, 60-foot, metal cross visible in three states—we counselors (still naive) had our charges sleep outdoors at the foot of the sigil on the bare top of the mountain. In the morning my champers gleefully informed me that I’d been praying in my sleep. “You kept saying ‘Amen. Amen,’” they told me. Alas, I don’t remember the dreams of that night. Perhaps when I find a medieval church on my journeys I’ll be brave enough to try an incubation ritual once again. This time I’ll take a tape recorder.

Alma Mater Matter

I was a teen-age religion major. Okay, that’s a bit dramatic, but I did start college at 19 and, being a first generation matriculant, had no idea about majors. No idea about colleges either. The school you choose stays with you for your life—especially if you decide to go into academia. A couple of recent events brought this home to me again. Grove City College is stridently conservative. Since I was raised Republican, it felt like a good fit at the time. It was cheap and close to home, and since my parental contribution was a total sum of zero, both of these factors counted heavily. Overlooked by many a hiring committee, it was also academically rigorous at the time. For better or worse, it’s now on my permanent record. Enough ancient history.

Recently a colleague asked me about an author, noting his undergraduate degree was from a school not unlike Grove City. I saw myself from the outside (yet again). Conservatism can be a lifestyle choice. My fellow religion-major grovers mostly went on to Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary or other bastions of further conservative thought. Their minds were already made up. In their early twenties, no less. I headed to Boston University, at the time the most liberal of the United Methodist seminaries, by reputation. But still my record says “Grove City.” My academic writings should leave no doubt as to my scholarly outlook (most of these papers are available on Academia.edu), but there is always a shadow of suspicion over a former grover. You can’t change your alma mater, no matter what the next decision you make says about you.

Then I came across a recent writing sample from one of my Grove City professors who’s still on the faculty. This piece showed that as this faculty member was in the early eighties, so he is still today. Biblical literalism all the way down. With over three-and-a-half decades to read, that’s incredible to me. I guess I just don’t share the kind of arrogance that declares you got it right the first time and that everything you read confirms a literal Adam and Eve. And a snake and a tree. What am I to think when I see a conservative undergraduate school on someone’s academic record? I would hope that I would know to look at the next step to see what that reveals. I am a grover, but a bad grover, I guess. You have to know how to read a permanent record.

Photo credit: The enlightenment at English Wikipedia

Photo credit: The enlightenment at English Wikipedia

Camping Season

Summer is the time for camp. I’m not into extreme sports, like sleeping outdoors in the snow, so in my mind, summer is the time for camp. While in college I spent two summers as a counselor for the Western Pennsylvania United Methodist Conference camps: Wesley Woods, Camp Allegheny, and Jumonville. These were formative experiences for me since I’d never camped as a kid (beyond sleeping on the front porch and an ill-fated attempt at Boy Scout camp one winter), and certainly not in a Christian context. My wife recently sent me a story in The Guardian about Jesus Camp. The documentary is a decade old now, and people are wondering if the religious indoctrination of children is child abuse or what. As always in such situations I tell myself the real issue is that you can’t understand Fundamentalism unless you’ve believed it. Really believed it.

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Some psychologists claim children can’t conceptualize God. Many adults can’t either, but for those who try, what they believe is true. The Fundamentalist parent doesn’t attempt to deceive his or her child. The thought of having your own children suffer eternally in Hell is a wrenching, and very real one. A convinced adult is morally, viscerally, and utterly compelled to teach her or his child the truth. Anything less would be monstrous, hideous, and inhumane. Critics from the outside say that such nonsense damages children psychologically. I have to admit that watching Jesus Camp made left me feeling enraged and, in some measure, victimized. The untold reality, however, is that apart from some cases of deep insincerity, most Fundamentalists truly believe what they teach their children. They’re not trying to abuse any more than a parent who teaches their progeny that the stove is hot. They want the best for their kids and life is full of uncomfortable truths.

Richard Dawkins, notably, has argued that teaching children religion is a form of child abuse. The fact is nobody knows the truth about religion. All we can do, scientists included, is believe. Believe for or against or somewhere in the middle. God, by definition, stands outside the reach of empirical evidence. Perhaps it’s just a trick of consciousness, but we have to leave the possibility open. We don’t even understand consciousness yet. Rare aberrations apart, people love and care for their children. They try to give them the best that they can, and that includes their religion or lack thereof. I saw some strange stuff at church camp. It wasn’t in any sense “Jesus Camp,” but it’s safe to say it changed my life. On the brink of fully legal adulthood I was coming to learn that certainty was impossible, and the only honest way to be in the world was to admit that we all, in some form, believe.

Time and Again

One score and ten years ago, I graduated from college. I also enrolled in seminary and worked in a United Methodist summer camp. I bought my own car and worked as a bag boy in a grocery store. I also met my future wife. Last night we watched Back to the Future, the sleeper hit and highest grossing film of 1985. There’s been a bit of buzz about it because, discounting the sequels, Doc Brown wants to travel thirty years into the future, yes, 2015, which seemed impossibly far off back then. I have to think his envisioned 2015 was more advanced than what we’ve actually managed. Technology, instead of sending us to Jupiter like Arthur C. Clarke imagined, has instead focused on the incredibly tiny. We now do finally have Dick Tracy wrist-phones with real-time images, but we’re still pretty much earth-bound and our rockets are aimed at other people rather than outer space. Instead of fighting aliens with lasers, we’re shooting fellow humans while at church, synagogue, or mosque. Instead of presidential candidates who want to see how far we can go, we’ve got a stagnant pool of people who want to turn the clock back to, well, 1955.

Back_to_the_Future

Don’t get me wrong—this is a fascinating time to be alive. Just yesterday I sat down to recollect the number of computers we’ve purchased as a family and what each could and couldn’t do. Our first couldn’t connect to the internet since no such thing existed. Our first laptop—which we still have—weights as much as a current desktop and has a black-and-white screen. Now we walk around with the internet in our pockets, never really disconnected from a web in which, I’m sure, lurks a huge spider. But back in 1985 you could make quite a few, as it turns out, false assumptions. Church attendance was healthy and would always continue so. We had space shuttles and were looking to walk on other planets. Rock had matured into a provocative mix of selfishness and social protest. Despite the president of those years, things seemed to be improving.

In Back to the Future, Marty McFly returns to the same Hill Valley he left. A fictional town, I noticed last night, that had a seedy downtown square with adult themed stores and movies. The 1955 square had bullies and manure trucks, but a cleanness that was only on the surface. When Marty’s DeLorean reappears in the square in 1985, he crashes it into a Church of Christ. Although this detail had escaped me before, now it strikes me as somewhat prophetic. Thirty years into the future and, like Marty, we are backing out of the church into an age of nones. Our nones not only refer to our religiously unaffiliated, however. We have nones who’ve lost faith in our government, our economy, and our worldview. Instead of going to Jupiter, we stare at our palms. And like Doc Brown, we look back thirty years with nostalgia and wonder at how wrong we are when we believe in the status quo.

Growing Green

It was bound to happen sooner or later. I married into a family of singers, and when we gather at a cabin in the woods, singing breaks out. In the drought-tormented northwest, under an extreme fire ban, there was no campfire, but that doesn’t stop the music. Once campfire songs begin, “Green Grow the Rushes, O,” always appears. I’m no singer, but I spent a couple years as a camp counselor, and many years before that as a youth conference attendee in the United Methodist Church. I know the song by heart. Usually it is now a sign for the adult males to sneak back to the cabin rather than endure the twelve repeating verses. Nevertheless, the question invariably comes up: what do the words mean? We have a couple of lists, here and there, explaining the lyrics, but the fact is the origins and meaning of the carol are obscure. It’s origins appear to be England, but the countdown of twelve verses contain imagery that is Christian, Jewish, and pagan. Over time, many of the verses have, like most oral tradition, undergone corruption. In many respects, it is almost biblical.
While it might be fun to run down all the verses and discuss their potential meaning, that is a task best left to a day when I have my computer working again. With limited internet access and an iPhone from which to post, full-scale exegesis is a daunting task. One aspect of the song, in any case, is clear—it is generally accepted to be a Christian catechetical tool. Repetitive and, especially before adulthood, fun, the song rewards those with strong memories for such obscure phrases as “April rainers,” “symbols at your door,” and “bright shiners,” in the proper order. After the song is over the teaching begins.
I have a book of camp songs from my counseling days, and it suggests a hermeneutic key to the song. My wife studied musicology, and she provided a somewhat more authoritative source. Then, of course, there’s Wikipedia. On some of the verses there is a general consensus, but most are open for debate, with some seeming to point to pagan origins. Tied up with the fact that the song is, in some places, connected with Christmas, this blend of Jewish, pagan, and Christian ideas comes as no surprise. The age and origins of the song are unknown, but it features references to Greek deities, Jewish laws, and Christian miracle stories. Musicologists have had a crack at the song, and surely will examine it again. The strangeness of the lyrics suggest a mystery to explore. Some mysteries are still to be found around the campfires of the north woods on a summer’s night.
  

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.

Tongues of Fire

“Do you want to see?” she asked me, fraught with all the emotions of a teen far from home. I’ve often questioned the wisdom of church groups sending large numbers of high school students to retreats or conferences where shear ratios of chaperones to teens guarantees intrigue. She was an attractive girl, and despite my commitments to asexuality early in life, I found her plea compelling. We weren’t supposed to meet after hours without the adults around. I was insanely curious, however. “A few of us will be gathering behind the gym,” she said. I demurred, afraid to break the rules. “Do you want to see now?” she insistently asked. We were in a room largely empty, as the adults were headed toward the food, the way adults always seem to do. I agreed. Nervously she closed her eyes in prayer. When she opened them, they were glassy and far away. A stream of nonsense words effortlessly bubbled from her mouth. This went on for what seemed like minutes, although I knew it was only seconds stolen from a scheduled curriculum. She closed her eyes, and coming back to herself, looked exhausted. “What did you say?” I asked, breathless. “I don’t know,” she admitted.

This was my first experience of glossolalia, or speaking in tongues. I was at the United Methodist Youth Annual Conference, and I’d just met the girl who’d revealed so much. Methodists, as a rule, aren’t much into glossolalia, but the Pentecostal movement has Methodist roots, and teens are the great experimenters of the human race. I can’t recall how I met her, or even her name. I felt an incredible attraction to a girl who could let herself be so possessed, however; so vulnerable to an Almighty deity. I decided not to go to the after dark gathering. Instead I sought out a minister I trusted. He explained that such signs, if truly divine, are only done in the presence of an interpreter. She was misguided. Yet I couldn’t get those glassy eyes out of my mind. Where had she been in those fleeting seconds when her mouth spoke a language she didn’t know?

While reading David Kling’s The Bible in History’s chapter on Pentecostalism, this all came back to me with incredible force. A few years later I attended a Pentecostal service with one of my college roommates who belonged to that tradition. Being in a room full of true believers speaking in tongues at the same time unnerved me. I never went back. Psychologists and neurologists have explanations for how glossolalia occurs. The standard evangelical explanation is quite different. For one young lady whose name I can’t recall, it was a sign she wanted desperately to share. A personal assurance that John Wesley himself encouraged his followers to seek. Not that Wesley ever suggested speaking in tongues. That only began in 1901, after a hiatus of nearly two millennia. To a teenage spiritual seeker in the presence of a young lady, away from home, it was a mystical experience indeed. The assurance, however, would have to wait.

Image credit: Phiddipus

Image credit: Phiddipus

Parochial Education

I’m sitting in King David’s Restaurant in Syracuse, New York. I’ve spent two days speaking with a wide diversity of religion scholars, and I’m realizing religion is not yet dead. A few days ago I wrote about the Burnt Over District and the Second Great Awakening. It occurs to me as I climbed the hill to the Religion Department in the rain, that I am on the trail of that Great Awakening. Syracuse University began as a Methodist school. Today, although affiliated with the United Methodist Church, it considers itself non-sectarian. Yet without those abstemious Methodists, they wouldn’t be here. The Methodists, now primarily represented by the United Methodist Church, owe their explosive growth to the Second Great Awakening. Out on the frontiers—for America was a rural nation—the revivals became showcases of the social, the supernatural, and the salacious. The Methodists and Baptists, in terms of numbers, benefited immensely.

With their enviable population base, the Methodists invested in higher education. Syracuse University, just up the hill, Adrian College, Boston, Central Methodist, Drew, Duke, Emory Universities, Florida Southern College—you could go nearly through the alphabet and not exhaust their schools—all owe their beginnings or present stature in part to those thrifty Methodists. Believers in an educated clergy, they reached out to embrace an educated laity as well. Although many of these institutions grew up and left their religion behind, the Methodists have impressed their stamp on American higher education unlike nearly any other denomination. Even when numbers in the pews decline, the Methodists will have left a legacy on the wider culture through their belief in education. About the only other Christian group invested so heavily in higher education has been the Catholic Church. Even so, the Methodist academic reputation climbs a bit higher.

I spent many happy years among the Methodists. Their way of looking at life, officially, anyway, isn’t extremist. Some aver that John Wesley was an extreme evangelist. Today he’d be snowboarding down the Alps to seek the unsaved, a Red Bull or two in his belly to stoke that restless fire. His followers, via media Methodists, eased into the mainstream—in some ways defined the mainstream. Methodism was good for a kid who needed to fit in. So as I sit in King David’s Restaurant, reflecting over my past that has landed me in this most unusual place, I am thinking about my Methodist roots. I’ve failed to impress those Methodist institutions where I was once courted for a circuit riding future. Now I watch as they educate other people’s kids. It is a safe guess that King David wouldn’t even be here if it hadn’t been for John Wesley and his personal need for assurance. If only more churches took education so seriously.

Climb that hill

Climb that hill

Making Light

Back when I was a starry-eyed camp counselor in the Western Pennsylvania Conference of the United Methodist Church, “Christmas in July” was a chic (in as far as Christians can be chic) trend. Kids lucky enough to be at camp that week were treated to a neo-Christian holiday that included a half-birthday for Jesus and cheap gift-giving. (The fact that Jesus’ birthday, in as much as it can be determined, is mid-way between December and July seemed a strangely mute point.) Our “gifts” were generally manufactured from natural products found in the woods and were a diversion to help the homesick campers concentrate on the truly Christian practice of getting stuff. Interestingly, here on Midsummer (the solstice is actually the first day of astronomical summer, but our pagan forebears were more into astrology, it seems, than astronomy) we are on the second most-celebrated holiday in the northern latitudes. With its midnight sun in the far north, and warm temperatures starting to make a regular appearance, light outweighs darkness for just a little bit, and life is never easier than this. No wonder Midsummer appeals to the archetypal mind.

Of course, Christianity could not accept a purely natural holiday, attributed as it was to the beneficence of heathen gods. In an even more dubious exercise than fixing the date of Jesus’ birth, Midsummer became the nativity of John the Baptist, or St. John’s Eve. While some scholars dispute the historical existence of Jesus (not terribly convincingly), the case against John the Baptist might be a little stronger. The prototypical forerunner, the herald announcing something greater than himself is so uncharacteristic of religious folk that it lends itself to considerable doubt. John is described like Elijah, one of the greatest prophetic figures of biblical times. John’s birthday? Anybody’s guess. Since he is second to Jesus, put his birthday on the opposite solstice. (I realize the solstice was June 20; at this early hour of the morning, I think today may also qualify.)

Back at Easter, historically near the vernal equinox, I found myself at Stonehenge. Knowing I was missing Druid priests by a full set of quarter days, it was still an exhilarating experience. Ancient people welcomed the return of increasing light with religious fervor. The effort it took to move these monoliths to the barren plains of Salisbury is nearly unimaginable. They represent, at some level, the invincible nature of the sun, our warmth and light. In physical, astronomical, terms they had no idea what the sun might be. It was, undoubtedly, the source of light and warmth, and even every lizard and turtle sunning itself on a rock participates in welcoming its return. So we’ve come to the solstice once again. It is the high point of the year. Now we begin our slow descent back into nights that will grow longer until the winter solstice once again reverses the trend. We don’t need Christmas in July–we already have it in June.