Tag Archives: Vatican

Alt Bible

A friend recently sent me a story from Anonymous titled “Why Did The Vatican Remove 14 Books From The Bible in 1684?” This piece reminded me of just how rampant biblical illiteracy is in this Bible-worshiping culture. To begin with the obvious, Roman Catholics are the ones who kept the Apocrypha in their Bibles—it was Protestants who removed the books. No doubt, retaining the Deuterocanonicals was a rear-guard action of the Counter-Reformation, but still, if you’re going to complain about the Papists it’s best to get your biblical facts straight. The story is headed with a picture of The Key to Solomon’s Key. Ironically, Solomon’s Key is actually an early modern grimoire that the author seems to think is the same as the Wisdom of Solomon, one of the books of the Apocrypha. Reading through the post it was clear that we have an Alt Bible on our hands.

(For those of you who are interested in the Key of Solomon, my recent article in the Journal of Religion and Popular Culture on Sleepy Hollow discusses the Lesser Key of Solomon, a famous magic book. It features in one of the episodes of the first season of the Fox series and, I argue, acts as a stand-in for the iconic Bible. One of my main theses (don’t worry, there aren’t 95 of them) is that most people have a hard time discerning what’s in the Bible and what’s not. But I obviously digress.)

The post on Anonymous states that the Bible was translated from Latin to English in 1611. The year is partially right, but the facts are wrong. The translators of the King James Bible worked from some Greek and Hebrew sources, but their base translation was the Coverdale Bible which had been translated into English and published some eight decades before the King James. Myles Coverdale relied quite a bit on German translations, but the King James crowd went back to the original languages where they could. The KJV was published in 1611, but the translation from Latin was actually something the Catholics preferred, not Protestants. The Vulgate, attributed to and partially translated by Jerome, has always been the favored Roman base text. Ironically, and unbeknownst to most Protestants, the King James translation did include the Apocrypha. I like a good conspiracy theory as much as the next guy, but they certainly make a lot more sense when the known facts align without the Alt Bible unduly influencing the discussion.

Pope Springs Eternal

All channels lead to Rome. In a world where Christians lament their public influence, we can’t seem to get enough of the pageantry, the mystery, and the stylish drama of electing a pope. The secrecy is key. If cardinal debates were held in an open forum, by cardinals in business suits, the media would have trouble covering its yawns. In a conclave deep within the classical architecture of Rome, privileged men in expensive gowns meet and whisper in hushed tones until a puff of smoke rises though a sacred chimney and the world either hitches its collective breath or sighs in deep contentment. No wonder the election of a pope is such a big deal for Protestant and Catholic alike.

We would be mistaken, however, to limit such docu-drama to Rome. Religions, from the earliest institutionalization of their practices, used drama and showmanship to add to the draw of the sacred. Ancient Mesopotamians and Egyptians kept statues of deities hidden away in the deepest recesses of temples, and brought them out periodically to great public fanfare. The laity would watch in astonishment as an actual god was paraded among them—the popemobile had yet to be invented—and lapse back into ordinary time as the sacred statue was swallowed once again in the darkness of its great house. Even the aniconic Israelites maintained ceremony and mystery, for they had an invisible god who raised all kinds of questions in the naturally curious human mind.

The papacy is, after all, a recognized authority structure. Some nations recognize the Vatican as a sovereign state, a little bit of the City of God among the Rome of Humanity. For the time being at least, the Roman Catholics outnumber any other branch of Christianity. It is the most successful trader in the marketplace of religious commodities among Christian consumers. Its draw has always been tied closely to a sense of mystery and awe. There is a magic to the mass that the televangelist sermon splashed on the big screen somehow lacks. It is old and arcane. Few believe in its literal transubstantiation, and yet it stands as the outward and visible sign of a deeply occluded reality that takes place behind closed doors. Men in red, debating on the virtues of a new CEO for the vicar of Christ. No wonder all channels are tuned to Rome.

From presidencia.gov.ar, via Wikimedia Commons

From presidencia.gov.ar, via Wikimedia Commons

Maltese Faction

The Crusades remain one of the most celebrated episodes of religious violence in the history of the church. I am certain that many would put forward other instances of official violence to rival the piecemeal warfare of the Middle Ages, however, the Crusades still jolt many Muslims for their unflappable conviction that God gave the Holy Land to them. Ironically a bit of good emerged from the carnage in the form of sometimes secret orders of knights whose charge was originally to care for injured and sick Christians. Thanks to Dan Brown everyone knows of the Knights Templar. There were, however, several of these orders spanning the eleventh to the sixteenth centuries, and some of them survive today. In Sunday’s New Jersey Star-Ledger a story appeared of the 900th birthday of the Knights of Malta. I don’t recall having heard of them before, but then, it has been many years since my last class in Medieval Christianity. And no wonder—they don’t even appear in Wikipedia under that name.

What is so interesting about the Knights of Malta is that, like the Vatican, they have the authority to act like a country. According to the Associated Press, the knights can issue their own passports, stamps, and money, and have diplomatic relations with real countries and even have observer status in the United Nations. The blurring of the lines between religion and politics, as any student of history knows, has deep roots indeed. The Knights of Malta, however, own no territory (no, their eponymous island isn’t theirs). A nation with no territory. At least the Vatican has its own city. The Knights still exist for their charitable works and, it is to be hoped, not for the conquest of lands legitimately owned by others.

The Sovereign Military Order of Malta (“sovereign” and “military” were omitted in the press), is a sub-branch of the Knights Hospitaller, the oldest surviving chivalric order in the world. It is nice to think that the church might still have a few knights up its sleeves. The concept of chivalry has largely been absorbed into chauvinism, however, and even now the Knights of Malta are men. Along with the Vatican, that makes two entities run completely by males that assert their own sovereignty. In the twenty-first century it would be nice to think that we wouldn’t need monied men in robes in order to help out those in need. But then I’ve always been prone to believe in myths. And knights tend to follow after daze. Crusades, however, have far outlived their putative usefulness.

Good knight?

Good knight?

Nun Such Luck

It hardly seems to be news anymore when the headlines read “Vatican orders crackdown on US nun association.” Religions are largely characterized as men telling women (and milquetoast men) what to do. Perhaps because of our evolutionary, simian respect for the alpha male, most followers will resist pointing out inequities in the system just to have a smoother ride. The all-male Vatican is reportedly worried about how nuns of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious might be distorting the masculine teachings of holy mother church. No matter how much science the Vatican supports, it just can’t get over the idea that when God is found out there he will have not only a human face, but a human penis as well. The Associated Press article states that the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith—that is the organization of the Inquisition, my dear readers—found grave errors of doctrine among the ladies. Sounds like time for an auto-da-fé, n’est-ce pas?

Somewhere on its long and weary trek, the control of fellow humans for the sake of God has slipped into the rut of control of fellow humans for the rush of power. The Catholic bishops are worried about abortion (and other healthcare options for women). The Bible says nothing about abortion, considering life to coincide with the first breath. The chosen people did not have a conception of how conception worked (you can’t see the sperm or ova without a microscope, no matter how divine they may be) and so life began and ended with breath. The only reason to push the origin of life to conception is so that men may control women’s sex lives. These decisions are made by sexless men who wear dresses behind inscrutable walls of power. When nuns start seeking fair treatment for women it quickly becomes heresy.

I don’t mean to single out the Roman Catholic Church here, since many religions proclaim male superiority—loudly or softly. Back in ancient times when goddess worship was taken as seriously as the cult of male gods, a few religions did exist that gave women a position equal to, or sometimes even above, men. The priests of Cybele, for instance, had to undergo ritual emasculation. Strangely, religions with celibate priesthoods today leave their men intact, perhaps as a loophole for sin. I wonder how much more women-friendly official theologies would be if only eunuchs were allowed to serve as pastors. It is, as Genesis famously states, sin that “is crouching at the door,” and therefore it is better to remain gendered and pray not to be led into temptation. Perhaps we have something to learn from history yet.

Roman Women

This week’s Life section of Time magazine features an issue that yet again raises the questions of definitions and who decides on correct religion. The feature by Tim Padgett entitled “Robes for Women” demonstrates the conflicted nature of religious authority. With the Vatican claiming women have never been priests, but historians questioning the assertion, the salient point is who has the right to decide. And what is lost, if such a change were to take place. Tradition is not threatened by change – it always stands sentinel over the past, but no religion remains unchanged for any length of time. It is not biblical authority that is lost either. Any religious body whose scriptures state, “call no man on earth your father,” yet which addresses its clergy by the title “Father” clearly possesses the casuistry to get around other biblical injunctions. What is lost is male power.

No matter how vociferous theologians may be concerning the genderlessness of God, the default male image seems deeply embedded in the human psyche. One of the most ancient and pervasive of mythological themes is the search for the father. The loving mother is the one who stays near and raises the child while the father leaves to make provision, or for reasons less wholesome. At some level we know that the deity portrayed by Scripture and tradition is male, a father who is difficult to find at times, particularly times of need. This archetypal image is not an excuse not to re-envision a genderless deity, but it underscores what generations of human experience has taught us. Referring to God as father and mother only complicates the matter by throwing into the mix all aspects of gender complications. Can humans even truly worship a god without gender?

If the Womenpriests movement succeeds, as no doubt it should, there will always remain a group who will not accept their authority. My experience at Nashotah House taught me that some prejudices are so deeply rooted that they are no longer even recognized by those who hold them. Wild examples of theological gymnastics were paraded before me as to why women should not hold priestly office. And like Nashotah House reveals, if women are finally accepted by Rome, others will split away and both sides will lay claim to the true faith. There will be no convincing either that the other is correct. The history of Christianity has taught us this sad truth. Current estimates suggest there are some 38,000 different Christian denominations. This is the common fate of all religions who claim to have exclusive access to the single, unambiguous truth.

The secret of the catacombs

Two Mites for the Truth

“Abuse scandal puts heat on Vatican for more transparency,” runs a headline on the front page of today’s New Jersey Star-Ledger. The reference, of course, is to the recent divulging of alleged abuse that implicates the brother of the Pope. The wording of this particular headline, however, contains the kernel of a very important religious preserve. Like the X-Files, religious structures thrive on secrecy. If the mystery were removed from religion, what would be the motivation to believe? Science provides facts and theories that do not require as much belief as they do acquiescence. Religion, on the other hand, deals with intangibles shrouded in murky darkness.

Religions cannot be transparent. “Naked business” models simply do not work when the wealth of the ages is at stake. Few religious believers ever question how or why the leaders of their traditions hoard wealth and valuable objects and real estate. The great medieval European cathedrals, as magnificent as they are, represent loss, pain, and toil on the part of a great many faithful. Those with severe consciences will always drop an offering in the plate, basket, or tray when divine pressure is laid upon them. Even if they really cannot afford it. Two mites for the salvation of an eternal soul is a real bargain!

No one can truly claim to have comprehended the whole of a religion. After all, many religions have centuries of accumulated lore and tradition that must be passed along in ways opaque to the general issue believer. If glass walls were erected around every seminary and religious training institution, those who have not had the experience of being involved in clergy instruction would find the sight blinding. No, religion will never be transparent. Nor will it ever be extinct. It is simply far too easy to believe what one is told.

Two mites, and then some

Money Driven Life

An Associated Press story this weekend fetes Saddleback Church’s Rick Warren’s ability to raise 2.4 million dollars at his megachurch in an economy where many are suffering because of our national plague of greed. I find the story distressing not because people are willing to put out money for what they believe in — that is human nature — but because what they believe in is so shallow. Oral Roberts is not yet a month in the ground, and megachurches are again begging for money. Worse, they are getting money.

The greatest stumbling block to the humble message of the teachings of Jesus has always been the greed and concupiscence of the church. Whether it be the Vatican or some evangelical Crystal Cathedral, churches that stockpile wealth, although they may indeed distribute some to worthy causes, ultimately become a major part of the problems that create an unjust society. The concentration of wealth into the hands of any religious body will corrupt it. I have known clergy to purchase vestments costing hundreds of dollars per piece while their children were fed with food stamps. I have seen televangelists wearing suits that cost more than a month’s salary for many of their parishioners. I have heard them giving God the praise for their personal glorification.

Glory to God at what cost?

Once the glitz is removed, whether it be priceless Renaissance art or the supreme comfort of a Rocky Mountain resort or southern California ranch, the real purpose behind such driven lives becomes clear. No amount of prevaricating will make the working-class founder of the religion touted by wealthy clergy a friend of the rich as long as the poor continue to suffer.