Future Shock

The Jehovah’s Witnesses are nothing if not persistent. Unemployed and huddling fearfully at home during the day a few years back, I answered the door and had a talk with the local missionaries. I explained that I was a biblical scholar and not open to be swayed to new religious sensibilities, but that didn’t stop them from trying to convince me otherwise. They were oh so polite, however, and sending them away seemed like the height of rudeness. The Witnesses have roots in my home territory, and I have a soft spot for religions originating in Pittsburgh. Despite the fact that I’ve had a day job now for about three years, they still routinely stop by and leave tracts behind. One of the most recent ran a headline “Can Anyone See the Future?”

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Of course the story inside quickly turns to prophecy and the age-old, if false, idea that biblical prophets were fortune tellers. Still, the popular conception among the public is just that: prophets see the future. In the Bible prophets are primarily social critics. They cry out against injustice, exploitation, and false religion (!). One thing they don’t do is see the future clearly. Isaiah had to be revised at least three times in the writing. Nevertheless, prophets are engaging figures. They are non-conformists who rail against a system that takes advantage of those who are helpless—not weak, but helpless. Many people are rendered helpless by society. One size can’t possibly fit all. And yet we keep the cover closed on those nattering prophets and pump our money into a capitalist engine that is fueled by human effort and spews the helpless out as exhaust. We could use a good prophet now and again.

The question about seeing the future, however, keeps coming back to me. It might have been a good talent to have some thirty years ago as I was pondering a college major and a career that would take me deep into the Bible. If I could see the future—renting an apartment for an extortionate amount of money for the privilege of living near a city where all my efforts would be poured out to help others make money off religion while asking people with the same degrees I have to write the books that I should be authoring—would I have taken this route? Or would I, as a local boy, have taken the warning of Charles Taze Russell and made my living through haberdashery. Is it any different than balderdashery? Would I have even opened the door? Only a prophet can tell.

God Spell

I had some good news from God recently, if the Jehovah’s Witnesses are to be believed, anyway. It had been a trying week in some ways, and who wouldn’t welcome good news? Back when I was unemployed, I used to natter with the Witnesses when they came around. Like a stray that you feed one time, however, you’d better be expecting them back from time to time. I was reminded of a phone conversation I overheard (in New York City generally everything is overheard by at least someone) where a woman was saying, “I keep praying Jehovah will straighten her out.” I didn’t know who the “her” was, but I did wonder why the Witnesses keep using a name that we know is technically incorrect. “Jehovah” is actually what you get when you read the Masoretic device of using the vowels from “adonai” with the consonants for “Yahweh,” in a Germanic language. Since Jews don’t pronounce God’s name, they used this little symbol to remind the reader to use the sobriquet “lord” (adonai) instead. Some literalists lined the letters up and came up with a Teutonic-Hebraic name that was never historically used for God.

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Well, the good news volume of the Watchtower addressed that. Sort of. Chapter 2, “Who is God?” notes “In English it [God’s name] is usually pronounced ‘Jehovah.’ But some people pronounce it ‘Yahweh.’” Historically and critically it is the other way around, but who’s counting? Orthodoxy doesn’t always make somebody a good person. In fact, most of the Witnesses I’ve met have treated me better than the majority of people in my own faith tradition. Familiarity, they say, breeds contempt. Religion often has a way of bringing out the worst in people. Since this was the good news, I decided to accentuate the positive. I turned to chapter 8 to learn “Why Does God Allow Evil and Suffering?” Theodicy is probably the largest generator of atheism that monotheism faces.

“Evil began on earth when Satan told the first lie.” Although, I wonder how you define a lie? According to Genesis 3.17, the conclusion to God’s first word to Adam was, “But of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it: for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die.” The last part of the sentence, “surely die,” is an emphatic in Hebrew, the original language of Jehovah. But it doesn’t literally happen. Most literalists allow this infelicity to stand, or explain it away as a “spiritual death,” while the Hebrew is quite plain in its meaning. Thou shalt surely die is non-negotiable. Not exactly true, however. I’m no theologian. I’m just a reader attempting to make sense of the world I see around me. Good news is there certainly, every now and again. But that theodicy question trips me up every time. Until we can face the implications of not surely dying, I’m not sure we’ll ever find out.

Guide Me, O Thou Great

You are an apostate, or worse. Unless, that is, you belong to the relatively select religion known as Jehovah’s Witnesses. Having grown up in a town bereft of Witnesses, my first exposure came as the result of an American Religions course. Grove City, Pennsylvania was not an ideal locale to experience religious diversity, outside the Protestant Neapolitan flavor. When we had to visit a religious service outside that milieu, I joined some classmates for a trip to the local Kingdom Hall. There are few situations as uncomfortable as watching other people being religious. It is so intimate. When Watchtower study began, my classmates and I, good Christians all, were shocked to hear even a young child answer one of the questions put by the leader with “the Christian apostates!” She was quite enthusiastic. If you were not a Witness you were an apostate.

Since that time, Witnesses have been no strangers to my door, so I read Andrew Holden’s Jehovah’s Witnesses: Portrait of a Contemporary Religious Movement (Routledge, 2002) with interest. Holden is a sociologist who undertakes an analysis of the ascetic, millenarian group in a conflicted situation. Modern society proves quite difficult to reconcile with Witnesses’ authoritarian biblical literalism. The assertion, now quietly overlooked, that the world did not end on cue has proved an embarrassment more than once. Most recently Armageddon was scheduled for a 1975 time slot, but this stubborn, old world just keeps limping along. In many ways, it is a sad tale. Witnesses advocate clean living and fair dealing, but if you’re not part of the club you are a danger to those who are. Non-monastic, they nevertheless shut themselves off from much that the world has to offer.

Holden’s study is a model of fair-minded analysis. He is not out to humiliate or insult the Witnesses or their lifestyle. He remains true to the evidence (but not the doctrine) and offers a rare, objective look at a New Religious Movement. Distinguished as one of the few religions to have started in Pittsburgh (the city that also gave us the cinematic zombie), Witnesses are now a six-million strong, worldwide religion. While Holden gives only a cursory glimpse of their doctrine, he does offer a rare view into an exclusive faith struggling for the end of a pluralistic world. It is a study well worth reading. Especially for an apostate.

One of Us

I suspect quite a few people are thinking about Jesus today. He does seem to be in the public consciousness with appearances on both Newsweek and the Watchtower. Newsweek, I have to admit, was an impulse buy. I’m flying to London today and I wanted something light to bring on the plane, so why not take Jesus along? I’ll have to report on the contents later. What caught my attention was the contemporary, very Caucasian Jesus standing in what appears to be Times Square. Since I walk through here a couple times a day, the immediately striking aspect is how unremarkable this would be. Perhaps that’s what the cover artist was going for, but people who think they’re Jesus—or at least a close approximation—are hardly rare. It seems that many of them are interested in running for president. Many others run Megachurches. Very few live on the streets.

My Jehovah’s Witnesses friends stopped by recently. I used to chat with them when I was unemployed, but I’m no longer home during missionary hours. This edition of Watchtower also features a very Caucasian Jesus, but one who wears his hair in a style no first-century Jewish man would have. He has been stripped of his own faith heritage just as surely as the blue-eyed Jesus on Newsweek. The funny thing about Christianity is the chimera they make of the human half of Jesus. This is one part of the Bible nobody wants to take literally. Does Jesus need to look like us to effect salvific results?

It is often said that beauty is skin deep. One has to wonder just how profound faith is as well. People seem to be better at believing what they see. When it is time to consider what God might look like, we inevitably consult a mirror. Where is the comfort in an all-powerful being that looks like he’s not one of us? Well, maybe we could ask women what it’s like. For all the variables in Jesus’ appearance, he’s always male. Funny, so are the people who profit most from promoting his brand. Maybe my ideas are just taking a flight of fancy. The rest of me is on a flight as well. And I have no idea what the captain looks like.

Watch Your Tower

So when the smoke clears from another leap day barely survived, and my Apocalypse calendar tells me about the looming end of all things, and the Jehovah’s Witnesses stop by and leave a Watchtower with the headline “Armageddon” at my door, I start to get a little paranoid. Did I miss the memo on this? I tend to be suspicious of any religion that is less than 150 years old—call me a historical snob in that respect. By the time of the nineteenth century of the Common Era, we were getting industrialization, evolution, and the Whig party sorted out. It was hardly a propitious time to be starting new religions. Well, I was curious about Armageddon, so I read a bit of the Watchtower in any case. It goes best with salt.

“The original Hebrew word Har-Magedon literally means, ‘Mountain of Megiddo.’ Although no such literal mountain existed, a place known as Megiddo does exist.” So I learned. But there was a mountain at Megiddo. Literally. I’ve been there. It’s not an impressive mountain like the Front Range of the Rockies, but it is sufficient for the purposes of the Bible. Megiddo overlooks the broad plain of the Jezreel Valley. In ancient times such valleys were highly valued for fighting because of a basic engineering difficulty with chariots: they don’t work well on hills. Chariots have open backs, so falling out would hamper effective up-hill battles (literal ones), and your chariot bumping into your horses or chasing them downhill would have resulted when the fighting was done. Or when you were fleeing. Valleys like Jezreel were perfect for fighting. And Megiddo has a front-row seat on its little mountain. The site of Megiddo has been excavated by archaeologists and is well worth the time it takes to get there.

By coincidence (or is it?) my apocalypse wall calendar begins March by saying, “Make Archaeology Your Friend.” Hmm, is there a message somewhere in here? When the Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Mayan interpreters agree, should we not at least admit a little doubt? I don’t think so. Both traditions, as certain of special revelation as they may be, are human attempts to make sense of our world. We know of nothing that doesn’t end. The great Eastern religions seem to have caught on more readily to the idea of impermanence than Western cultures have, but they all share this in common—it’s gotta end sometime. I would, however, point out to Mr. Santorum, as he begins to think about his concession speech, that the Jehovah’s Witnesses seem to agree with the amateur Catholic on the part about Satan. My Watchtower says “Satan will marshal the nations for an assault on those who worship Jehovah God.” Perhaps politicians should stick to following the Mayans.

A Walk Around the Watchtower

The Jehovah’s Witnesses stopped by yesterday. I never pretend not to be home, and when I’m less stressed out I like to engage them in terms of biblical exegesis — religion is all about conflict. Yesterday I was still recovering from the disappointment of not getting a job I really wanted, so I simply answered their questions and accepted their Watchtower magazine. Thumbing through it, I ran into some hermeneutical obstacles — an occupational hazard for those of us who’ve spent a little too much time with the Bible, I suppose. A story about Joshua informed me that “Jehovah wants you to succeed.” It tasted a little too much like prosperity gospel and not much like life in the present. So I flipped a few more pages.

An article on Lunar New Year (Chinese New Year, as it is traditionally called), warned against Christians celebrating it, in part because of ancestor veneration. The Watchtower declares, “the Bible show that the ‘ghosts’ and deceased ‘spirits’ are really wicked spirit creatures pretending to be the deceased. For what purpose? To mislead people and bring them under their evil control!” Now, I admit to being drawn into the Ghost Hunter fan-base, but I do recall the story of Saul summoning Samuel from the dead. The Bible doesn’t indicate that he’s evil; in fact, it is Samuel himself! If ghosts want to deceive then they need to show up a little more clearly and give more direct messages.

I then learned about King David’s remarkable musical prowess in the story about music in the Bible. It is truly amazing what can be extrapolated from a literal reading of the Psalms. The magazine informs us that King Sennacherib, emperor of Assyria, demanded male and female musicians from Hezekiah. “It seems that they were first-class performers.” This seemed a little too much like the stereotype of Jewish entertainers, and since it was extra-biblical I couldn’t accept it. The story concludes by indicating that music is not a human invention. “The Bible describes music and singing in the heavens themselves, where spirit creatures play figurative harps and sing praises around Jehovah’s throne.” As I pondered what a figurative harp would sound like, I could swear I heard the sound of one hand clapping.

Being that time of year, the issue has an Epiphany story. Well, most Christians associate the wise men with Christmas, so I’ll call it a Christmas story. Eager to be honest, the author notes that the wise men were really foreign astrologers. And although they were into witchcraft, the angel announced Jesus’ birth to them to lead them away from this abhorrent practice. Then a divine revelation came to them in a dream in order that they could avoid Herod and his wicked plan. So the astrology that led them to Jesus was bad, but the end result was good.

When the Jehovah’s Witnesses ask me if I know about the Bible, I look at my feet and kick at an invisible speck of mud on the floor as I admit that I have taught Bible for nearly twenty years. But when they ask what I believe about the Bible I tell them the same thing I tell my students — what I believe is personal and I choose not to share it. I don’t begrudge any person of their religion. I even share the Jehovah Witnesses’ hope that the future may be brighter than the present. If you want to convert a religion professor, even an adjunct one, however, it will take more than a Watchtower to do it.