Faithism

Religion, in general, has come upon hard times. Many proponents of science and secularism point disparagingly toward what is, in all likelihood, one of religion’s strengths: its utter diversity. The fact is all people are believers. No amount of denial will change that. Whether the belief is in science or magic, we all take things as true, based on our outlook. My wife recently forwarded me a story about Faithism from the New York Times. A religion built around the Oahspe Bible, written about the same time as the Book of Mormon, Faithism very nearly went extinct before undergoing a modest revival in the present day. Instead of casting aspersions on it, a far better approach is to consider the basic, underlying human element to the movement.

Faithism was based on a book written by a dentist, a one John Ballou Newbrough. Although I’d never hear of Newbrough before, I can make a safe assumption about him—he was struggling with trying to understand a supernatural that can’t be measured or tested. This same element applies to scientists. Measurables have to leave at least a physical trace. Millennia ago, religions were already claiming that outside this mortal coil there was an entire realm that we could experience with our feelings but which would never offer any physical confirmation. There’s a pretty obvious difference between the living and the dead (at least to most people). Since nothing measurable changes at human death, it must be something incorporeal. Scientists begin to shake their heads here, but even they must face it some day.

The other takeaway from Faithism is that spiritual writings, like tiny particulate matter in clouds, can lead to the coalescence of something larger. Orally based religions, such as Zoroastrianism, seldom survive long. (Zoroastrianism, however, had very compelling ideas.) Written texts, once believed to be inspired, will naturally grow like a pearl over a grit of sand. The factuality of the text doesn’t matter, as long as it is the object of belief. When it rains, it pours. Some architects of new religious movements, such as L. Ron Hubbard, perhaps implicitly know that. While his science fiction may not have been inspired, his religious texts were. Unlike Scientology, science requires objective measures of what it considers reality. The title of Faithism, however, makes a trenchant point—it is belief in faith, like fear of fear itself, that makes religion. While historically few have believed in Faithism, even atheists have faith in what they don’t believe.

Peter and the Red Giant

Now that my book has been sent off to the publisher, I’m working on the next project. This one has me delving back into the Greek of the New Testament. It may be, some would say, that I’m no longer an expert in such things. Coming to Koiné Greek, however, after lingering among languages like Ugaritic and Akkadian, feels like coming home. It’s Indo-European, after all. One of the books I’ve come back to is 2 Peter. This is a curiosity among the canonical books. All but the most conservatively predisposed of scholars note that this little letter didn’t actually come from the Peter. The idea of using someone famous as a literary pseudonym was a well known and widely accepted practice in ancient times. In fact, the prefix “Pseudo-“ on classical writers is so common that I feel just a little self-conscious. Nevertheless, 2 Peter contains fascinating ideas.

The Bible was influenced, of course, by many outside sources. One of those sources was Zoroastrianism, the religion of ancient Persia. This came to mind because 2 Peter is the only book in the Bible that describes the end of the world as burning and melting. These ideas are tied to the purifying fire of Zoroastrianism. In that religion an evil deity, Angra Mainyu, corrupted this world. Fire, in Zoroastrian thought, is holy. At the end of time, when the blessed ascend to a heavenly mountain, a river of fire will pour down, burning and purifying the polluted earth left behind. The idea is powerful and evocative, and obviously some early Christian writers cottoned onto it. Including 2 Peter.

The idea, in the Bible, stands isolated in this one single book. The real concern of the epistle is false prophets, though. Still, the worldly should take note. The universe in biblical times consisted only of this relatively flat planet—which wasn’t even a planet then—with a starry dome overhead and a fiery Hell beneath. Ironically, 2 Peter’s end is similar to that predicted by modern astronomers. A star the size our sun will likely bloom out into a red giant, parboiling the earth in its death throes. Seems the Zoroastrians, and Peter, may have been correct after all. The thing is they both had an escape hatch that will only come with interplanetary migration, according to science. But then, all of this assumes there will be a world left after the Trump administration. And speaking of false prophets, I wonder what 2 Peter would’ve had to say about that?

Infinite but Expanding

What could be more humbling than living in an infinite but expanding universe? Since the days of Copernicus, Brahe, Kepler, Galileo, and Newton we’ve known that the apparent reality of both our own lives and that portrayed in Holy Writ is inaccurate. The earth doesn’t hold still, and the sun doesn’t rise or set. The universe isn’t a layer-cake with Heaven above and Hell beneath. Instead it’s mind-numbingly massive. The only appropriate response, it would seem, would be silent awe. Marcelo Gleiser, whose work I’ve mentioned before, is a rare scientist. Rather than continually slapping the rationalist card on the table and declaring science the trump suit, he brings an element of humility to his writing. So much so that he’s willing, almost eager, to engage religion. Not in debate, but in conversation.

The Prophet and the Astronomer is a wide-ranging book that is tied together around the theme of the end of the world. A few weeks back we had yet another brush with a biblical literalist declaring the end of all things. Gleiser, although his book was published over a decade ago, was called in to comment in various places. This book opens by discussing ancient ideas of the end of the world. These are necessarily religious ideas. We don’t fully understand ancient concepts, but enough remains for us to see that apocalypses have their origins in Zoroastrian thought. Judaism encountered such thinking and the book of Daniel ran with it. Early Christians also had the world’s end on their minds, and the book of Revelation developed into a full-blown apocalypse. The world, or at least the western hemisphere, has never been the same since. Centuries of living under the threat of a cataclysm that could come at any second surely takes its toll.

Gleiser then shifts to the real harbingers of potential apocalypses. Comets and asteroids still exist and could theoretically deliver what the Bible implies might happen—a fiery end to the planet. This is sobering stuff. But the book doesn’t stop there. Bidding adieu to the dinosaurs, The Prophet and the Astronomer sweeps us into this great, expanding universe and how it may end, scientifically. Black holes and the heat death of the universe can be truly terrify. What is remarkable about the book, however, is that Gleiser openly acknowledges that science can’t give the comfort and meaning that religion can. Instead of saying, “be tough, face facts” he suggests that scientists might consider a narrative that adds value to a cold, dark universe. That’s not to say some of the story isn’t technical and some of the concepts aren’t difficult to grasp, but it is to suggest that science and religion should sit down and talk sometime. Hopefully before the end of the world.

Excarnation

To those raised in the Christian tradition incarnation is a familiar concept. The idea, more complex than it sounds, is that God becomes human. In a world of DNA and general disbelief in anything non-physical, it boggles the mind how disincarnate “matter” (for lack of a better word) might bond with the double-helix in order to create something new. Since science can’t explain such things spiritual, believers have long hung the cloak of mystery here and passed on to more practical matters. But what about excarnation? It’s actually not the opposite of theological incarnation, but it does involve spiritual practice. A friend sent me an article on Vintage News (much better than fake news, in my humble opinion) titled “The Towers of Silence: Ancient reminders of an eerie Zoroastrian burial ritual.” This was a nice find because I’ve been reading about the Zoroastrians again recently, and if ever there’s been a case of an important religion going underground, their’s is it.

I don’t mean to sound patronizing about it, but Zoroastrianism has been one influential religion. Having roots in the world between Vedic and Semitic religions, it had an impact on both. In my teaching days when I covered Zoroastrianism my Hindu students remarked on how similar the concepts were to their tradition. More reluctant were those of the Judeo-Christo-Islamic side to see that key concepts such as Heaven, Hell, the Devil, and Armageddon have their ultimate roots in the dualism that Zoroastrianism put on offer. Thus spake Zarathustra. We know very little about this founder of the religion. We do know that he set out to create a “systematic theology” that explained the world he saw. The result has changed the world many times over.

Those of you drawn in by catchy titles may be wondering what excarnation has to do with it. Believing dead bodies to be inherently corrupt, burial wasn’t the best Zoroastrian option since it only polluted the ground. The response was the ultimate in up-cycling—expose dead bodies until the vultures eat all the polluting flesh and then handle the dry bones afterward. This practice is arguably the most natural way of disposing of human remains, but it’s distasteful to many people. Who wants to be eaten? Unless, of course, you’re a believer in incarnation. For in that tradition God incarnate told his followers to eat his body and drink his blood. The more squeamish have done what religions have always excelled at—they turned earthy reality into a metaphor. Even vultures have to eat.

Image credit: John Gould, HC Richter, Wikimedia Commons

Image credit: John Gould, HC Richter, Wikimedia Commons

Devil of a Time

thedevilOne might be excused for thinking so much about the Devil these days. Displays of lies and evil intentions are on pretty obvious display at the highest levels. Indeed, the current political situation has me reassessing my skepticism about the Antichrist. One of the truly well thought out books on the subject is Jeffrey Burton Russell’s classic, The Devil: Perceptions of Evil from Antiquity to Primitive Christianity. The first in a series of books Russell wrote on the topic, The Devil opens with evil. Noting that the Devil defies easy definition, Russell begins rather disturbingly with literary descriptions of acts that can only be described as evil. This allows him to point out that real life events often surpass those that authors can get us to read, intimating that something is seriously wrong with the world.

Having noted that, the emergence of the Devil is not an easy one to trace. Evil has been recognized in many cultures and it has been explained in many ways. Some have personified it, but even that took a long and circuitous route to the dark lord we know today. Bits of Greek philosophy and Zoroastrian cosmology combine with an emerging monotheism among the Israelites and their kin until eventually we have an embodiment of evil appearing. Even so, the Bible has no clear image of who “the Devil” is. This took further developments beyond the New Testament and the image that eventually won out, so to speak, borrowed heavily from classical mythology. Eventually Old Scratch emerges in a recognizable form.

Belief in the Devil still runs high in American culture. I suspect it will run even more so in months to come. At the end of Russell’s well researched study, the Devil comes down to the blatant disregard for the suffering of others. One might think of the mocking of the disabled or the favoring of the wealthy over the poor. Evil may be known by many names but it is easily recognized by those not caught up in its worship. This became clear in the biblical quotations sprinkled throughout the book. “Woe unto them that call evil good, and good evil,” for example. Or “when an ungodly man curses Satan, he curses his own soul.” Mirrors may serve multiple purposes. The vain look into them and see only beauty. Those who believe in the Devil can’t help but know who it is that stares back.

Opposites Distract

In the current political climate—and not just in the United States, as Brexit reminds us—opposites seem to be the order of the day. The middle ground seems to have fallen out as those frantic for turning back the clock to a day that never really ever existed make their voices louder and more strident. After seven millennia of progress, the apogee of mankind—and let’s be explicit that we mean rule by white men—was reached in “the greatest generation” and the happy days that followed in the 1950s. Those of us born to protest for an even greater idealism have, by our very nature, disrupted the smooth calm that fictitiously prevailed through the first half of the last century. In a new millennium the ghosts of the last century dictate policy. Would I have felt safer then?

The more I ponder this stark dualism, the more it seems that the origin is religious. In its most recent iteration that religion is branded as Christianity, but in actual fact the dualism goes much deeper than that. The adjective “Manichaean” has become popular with writers who discern a certain black and whiteness to our outlook. Mani wasn’t the first dualist in history. In fact, he was somewhat late to the game. We don’t know much about Zarathustra, or Zoroaster as the Greeks called him, but we do know that he set out to devise a new religion. His outlook was one that saw the world as opposites. For every good god there had to be a bad god. There was a struggle that would result in either going to a heaven or a hell. Just about every religion that has developed ever since has shared his conflicted outlook.

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As political pundits bellow more like hippopotami than elephants, trumpeting that those who are different are not to be trusted, we’ve come once again into a dualistic world. Pluralism and globalization are not without their critics. Technology, however, has ensured that they will continue apace. Some governments have tried to “switch off” the internet. Those on the other side of the Berlin Wall didn’t want the truth of what was happening on the other side to be known. They had invented a dualism that was protected with rifles and threats. The problem is things aren’t as simple as the Manichaeans would have us believe. Ours is a world of beautiful, glorious complexity. It takes religion, it seems, to make such a wonderful chaos into something far too simple to match reality.

Popular Eternity

EntertainingJudgmentPopular culture, it seems to me, mediates reality. The media of various descriptions teach us what to think, and even if there is a religiously “orthodox” answer to questions, we will weigh it in the scales against what larger society says. This becomes clear in Greg Garrett’s Entertaining Judgment: The Afterlife in Popular Imagination. Garrett, a scholar of religion and popular culture, turns his attention to death in this book. More precisely, what happens after death. The usual suspects of ghosts, vampires, and zombies are here, but also the realms of Heaven, Hell, and for the Catholics in the house, Purgatory. All of these are seen through the various lenses of movies, television, song, comic books, regular books, and games. It’s fair to say that we’re a culture obsessed with death. But then again, what culture isn’t? It may be just that it comes across more charming when there’s a buck to be made at it.

What I found interesting is that although the Bible has little to say about Heaven or Hell (and nothing at all about Purgatory), each of these realms has developed a canonical script. Hell is hot and fiery, Heaven is cool and cloudy. Purgatory is gloomy, but beyond that comes in mild, medium, and hot varieties. We know these things from various teachings of our respective religions. In popular media, however, the script has been changing. We now have mild unpleasantness passing for Hell, if it lasts forever. Nobody needs to get burned. Heaven, meanwhile, can be just okay. It’s certainly better than the other place. Or the other two. We’ve overused our superlatives and have been left feeling like we’re on antidepressants.

Polls continue to tell us that many, if not most, Americans believe in literal Heavens and Hells. A point Garrett raises, however, is they may not mean by that what their clergy assert to be the case. Since near death experiences are controversial, nobody can say that they’ve actually been to either place, or the third. The exception to this rule is those who work in fiction—in whatever form. Since we can see their visions of the afterlife so clearly they have become the arbiters of eternity, with or without any religious training. In this day of marketplace religion and nones, Heaven and Hell seem to have become secular. The church may have introduced the ideas (actually, they seem to go back to the Zoroastrians, but I’m thinking of American culture) but the media have taken them over. We may be secular, but we still die. Entertaining Judgment might give you an idea of what to expect, depending on whose vision you buy.

Freezes Over

A good metaphor gone bad can do a lot of damage. Like a loose cannon. Hell is a bad neighborhood for metaphors. Taken literally Hell can be hell. So it is that many evangelical Christians are abandoning the concept. Jumping ship on the Manichean outlook that has policed bad behavior for two millennia now. A recent article on National Geographic by Mark Strauss discusses why many leading conservatives are now casting Hell into the pit and looking for ways to make God look better. Like many metaphors, Hell best resides in a world of black and white. A dualistic world where there are no shades of gray (certainly less than fifty of them). A world where any behavior can be understood as good or bad, forward or retrograde, never neutral. You’re either for us or against us. There’s no Switzerland in this geography. That’s precisely why so many people want to keep Hell on a leash.

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Hell probably never would’ve become such a motivator for good had Jesus not mentioned it. Prior to its encounter with Zoroastrian beliefs, Judaism held that the dead quietly resided in Sheol, a dreary place, true, but hardly fiery real estate. You worked out justice here on earth because that was the only chance you had. The dead were sleepier than early morning commuters and they received neither rewards or punishments. It was a much more egalitarian view of things. The dualistic Zoroastrians saw paradise and torment as a great image to explain evil in the world. The sorting takes place after this life is over. Jesus used such language as well, and the image became canonical.

Evangelicals are now starting to think through the implications of all this. A God with the kinds of anger issues that condemn people literally forever might be problematic. Sure, we may get angry at our enemies, but only the most truly heartless person has no pity on their suffering. What does it say about God if his anger lasts for eternity? Some, therefore, are trying to put the metaphor back into Hell without losing the strict divisions for which the good news crowd is famous. Instead of full-time Hell, perhaps there’s part-time Hell with time for repentance. Or simple annihilation. Metaphors lose their power when they come to be taken literally. Hell is such a loose canon. Doctrine among the doctrinaire is often non-negotiable. Although some may try, as a whole, the fires of Hell can never be extinguished. At least to those who understand figures of speech as statements of fact.

Footprints in the Snow

A friend keenly aware of my interest in the unusual sent me a story about the “Devil’s Footprints” that sometimes occur in snow. The article focuses on an instance in England in 1855 but which was reprised in 2009. The prints, made by a bipedal, cloven-hoofed animal, surmount tall barriers and occur on rooftops as well as on the ground. Such a phenomena is not limited to England. Associated with the Jersey Devil, similar unusual trails were reported during the flap of sightings in the early part of the last century here in New Jersey. As the piece on Mental Floss states, this is most assuredly not diabolical work, but it does make me wonder why people associate the unknown with the Devil.

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As a character in world religions, the Devil can trace his (and, like God, he is almost always a male) origins to the Zoroastrians. Zoroastrian theology is a dualistic outlook: ultimate good versus ultimate evil, Good God versus Bad God. The idea synced particularly well with the burgeoning of apocalyptic thought that hovered in the air during the time that the people of ancient Judah came into contact with Persian thinking. The idea was toned down, of course, to a being with lesser powers than God, but still a real foe with which to contend. By the time of the New Testament, the Devil was ensconced and associated with the Persian accuser known by the title of “the Satan,” or the divine prosecuting attorney. How this character came to be associated with strange footprints in the snow traces an odd trail indeed. The key is the cloven hooves.

No description of the Devil exists in the Bible. The best evidence suggests that the horns, goatish bottom, and cloven hooves come from an association with the Greek demigod Pan. Why Pan was singled out as a particularly bad god is not known. He was popular in ancient Greece. It is certain that the Jews of Jesus’ time would not have recognized a cloven hoofed beast as devilish. The livelihood of too many relied on sheep and goats. Once the transformation took place in the imagination, unexplained cloven footprints appearing in the night suddenly became those of the Devil. As Stacy Conradt points out in her Mental Floss post, several suggestions have been made for creatures of the natural world and their snowy markers. We don’t know what makes the footprints, however, and winter is all the richer for it.

Who the Devil?

OriginSatanThose who’ve studied the history of ancient West Asian religions know that the concept of a devil, as a character, derives from Zoroastrian origins. In Zarathustra’s dualistic worldview, the forces of evil were concentrated in an “anti-God,” who, upon contact with the emerging monotheism of ancient Israel, became the satan. While scholars still argue about exactly what the role of the satan was, it is clear that it was a role, and not a name. The job of the satan was in some way to bring to accounting wicked deeds. By the time of the New Testament, “the Devil” had developed into an embodiment of evil more along classic Zoroastrian lines. What Elaine Pagels explores in The Origin of Satan is encapsulated in her subtitle: How Christians Demonized Jews, Pagans, and Heretics.

This is not a book about the historical development of the figure of Satan, but rather a study of how early Christians (and to an extent, Jews) viewed “the other.” Naturally she does discuss Satan, who developed along the lines suggested above, but more specifically she addresses how the accusation of being “of Satan” was used. Interestingly, it was generally utilized by those of ancient times to describe those of their own religion, but who held different viewpoints. Sects of Christianity and Judaism generally accused other sects in their own religious tradition of being “satanic.” Foreigners and pagans, well, what would you expect of them anyway? Those closest, ironically, are those most despised. Even early converts to Christianity from Roman polytheism tended to view their former religion as satanic. Satan, in other words, is “the other.” But not the far other. The near other.

While the book is full of Pagels’ usual erudition, it is also disappointing. Not as a book, but as a fact. Religions that claim God only wants us to love one another and treat each other well rely too readily on the figure of personified evil to castigate their enemies. As Pagels demonstrates, even as early as Augustine of Hippo there were those who realized Satan was not a “physical” being, but a symbol for evil. Yet on through the Middle Ages Satan would continue to be evoked to murder women and men thought to be witches or heretics. Satan, it seems, is simply a word for our darkest urges to harm those different from ourselves. We know that religions often have noble intentions. Perhaps the most noble could be to rid the world of Satan, and I don’t mean the mythological figure we all recognize without a hint.

Apocalypse When?

We want to understand what worms through the mind of terrorists, and yet we don’t want to be bothered with religion. For decades universities have been shutting down departments of religion because they don’t make money. Religions aren’t materialistic in that way. In the light of the attacks on Paris over the weekend, many have been turning to the media to learn more about ISIS. A piece in the Atlantic by Graeme Wood, published back in March, pointed out how we have tended to see the movement as political, not religious. Wood, however, demonstrates the apocalyptic intentions of the leaders of ISIS. They are religious. Just because you carry guns and high explosives doesn’t mean you don’t believe.

Apocalyptic thought and politics are a deadly combination. The United States is not immune. Knowing the bent of George W. Bush’s distortion of Christianity, his terms in office were very frightening for many of us. Some Christianities, as well as some Islams, not only anticipate the end of the world but earnestly long for it. Pray for it. In the case of some Fundamentalist Christian sects, world leaders should orchestrate events to force God’s hand in bringing about end times. The fact that we had a president sympathetic to those beliefs should send shudders down anyone’s spine. The idea of an apocalypse is a religious one—there is nothing secular about it. We know the history of the concept, although universities eschew those who look that far back. Zarathustra, also known as Zoroaster, devised a new religion that reflected the basic dualism we all feel: good versus evil. The only way that good could ultimately win in such a worldview was through the complete destruction of evil. And evil wasn’t going down without a fight. This idea influenced Judaism during the Exile, and thus Christianities adopted it. And Islams. No moral relativism here.

The horsemen close in

The horsemen close in

Religion is not evil. Historically it has attempted to be a moral compass to guide believers toward right over wrong. The fact that any religion faces opposition shoves those weak of mind into an apocalyptic state. Gather the horsemen and try to prod God into action. We don’t see divine activity on any kind of scale that we would recognize. The religious events of the past—the Islamic expansion, the Crusades, the Jewish revolt against Rome—these events are merely political. Those who’ve been conditioned to see God behind human activities, however, view such things very differently. Apocalypses are religious events. No amount of reason will convince a convicted believer to look elsewhere for consolation. Yet we press on with guns and bombs and ignorance of what makes religions tick. And tick they will. No matter how secular we might wish the world to be.

Write the Truth

XalliopePublication is a tricky business. Just ask my friend, K. Marvin Bruce. Marvin and I have known each other for years as he’s been trying to break into fiction publishing. I don’t envy him. His novel, Passion of the Titans, was under contract with an indie publisher who eventually reneged on their agreement. What can you do? As a supporter of publishers you don’t want to sue, so the novel is floating around again, looking for a home. Meanwhile, I was flattered to receive in my mailbox a copy of Calliope magazine. Calliope is published by the Writer’s Special Interest Group of American Mensa, Ltd. Marvin’s story, “Initiating an Apocalypse,” won third place in their fiction open. Not only am I pleased for my friend, but I was glad to see his story was about gods. Zoroastrianism doesn’t get much attention these days, but Marvin’s tale is about a hapless professor who wants to start an apocalypse by using Zoroastrian deities. I won’t give any spoilers since I’m sure few people have read the story.

His tale has me thinking of gods in fiction. I suppose mainstream literary fiction avoids deities, but fantasy, science fiction, and horror all make good use of them from time to time. Neil Gaiman’s American Gods made quite a splash, and although Marvin has no hope of becoming a widely recognized name, his novel also features gods. It is a literary incarnation. We like to see gods in some ways limited to human circumstances. Omnipotence rarely makes for a good plot. In many respects the Bible attests to this. If God is omnipotent (which is not a claim the Bible actually makes) why can’t the world be a happier place? Indeed, the solution most fondly groped by theologians is either free will or a version of the Zoroastrian solution: a god who is evil. Enter the Devil.

The Devil is also undergoing a kind of literary renaissance. We find a plethora of books and movies starring the prince of darkness. Despite the panegyrics of rationalism delivered by angry atheists, nothing salves the human soul like a good supernatural entity. Fiction writers have long recognized that. Gaiman was not the first to make the gods do his bidding in literature. There is a likelihood that even Homer knew the appeal. Many people can accept that gods might exist, and they certainly don’t object to stories in which they cavort. Fiction, as literary analysts know, teaches us about reality. The characters may not be literally true, but the fact is that in our minds there is still plenty of room for gods. And, if you one of the rare ones to read Marvin’s story, you’ll see that, true to human experience, deities don’t act as we expect them to. Savvy publishers, it seems to me, would do well to recognize the appeal of the gods.

Slippery Logic

Last week NBC reported on a baby in Tennessee. Babies in Tennessee, one might suppose, are pretty common. This one, however, was given a name stricken down by the courts. Child Support Magistrate Lu Ann Ballew declared that the baby could not be named “Messiah.” Apart from the statement that this is a title and not a name (don’t tell Judge Reinhold, please), the judge (not Reinhold) demonstrated her biblical illiteracy by stating that the title messiah has, “only been earned by one person and that one person is Jesus Christ.” Oh well, this is the Bible Belt, after all. Nevertheless, I would expect someone so deep in the Bible Belt to know the actual Bible a little better.

“Messiah” derives from a Hebrew word meaning “anointed one.” Its meaning is somewhat more literally along the lines of “smeared with oil,” for that is what anointing is. The title is used for several people in the Bible, not just one. Aaron, for one, was anointed. David was anointed as king, as were several other characters, including ill-fated Saul. And let’s not forget where Isaiah says clearly of Cyrus II, king of Persia, that he is “his anointed,” i.e., Yahweh’s anointed, in Hebrew, “his messiah.” Not Jewish, not Christian, Cyrus was a good old Zoroastrian. And he was just one in a long line of messiahs.

Where's your Messiah now? Oh, there he is.  (Photo by Persian Light.)

Where’s your Messiah now? Oh, there he is. (Photo by Persian Light.)

I’m not doubting Judge Ballew’s reasoning that it might be in the best interest of the child not to have such a controversial name. I do doubt, however, that it would be in the best interest of that child that he be raised being taught that evolution is a myth and special creation six thousand years ago is science. I do doubt that it is in his best interest to be taught that homosexuality is a sin and that it is something that only people have ever done because of their “fallen nature.” I do doubt that it is in the child’s best interest to be raised believing that if a woman is pregnant that a male-dominated government has the right to decide whether she carries the baby to term, no matter what. And once that baby is born, I do not believe it is the government’s right to decide on what his or her name shall be. And I expect that all the people named “Jesus” out there would agree. And Judge Reinhold.

Beyond Measure

Thinking back to my first course in World Religions, I recollect learning about Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, and Confucianism for the first time. It is likely that Taoism was also mentioned, but I had to do a ton of research before I taught the course for the first time at Oshkosh. I remembered learning nothing about Sikhism or Shinto, not to mention Jainism or any host of religions boasting smaller numbers, by gosh. Now that I’m in the business of commissioning books on world religions, I have come into a quandary. As I know from experience, those who teach world religions are faced with a classic case of TMI: too much information. These religions I’ve mentioned only begin to scratch the vast surface of human religious expression, while your typical semester is only 14 weeks in duration. How do we cover all the smaller religions, some of which may have even a million or more adherents, and may be, at times, geared toward violent behavior? There’s simply no way.

This is where the quagmire grows thickest—are “major religions” quantified by numbers alone? From comments of readers of this blog it is quite clear that Christianity is no uniform religion. The differences go deeper than Protestant or Catholic or Orthodox. Most of us follow rather idiosyncratic blends of various religions we’ve experienced. It is not unusual for a Christian to practice yoga or to engage in meditation. And there are thousands of smaller religions as well, and the beliefs are deeply embedded in the lives of those who hold them. A good example would be Native American religions. There isn’t just one. Various tribes held their own beliefs and yet try to find a textbook that covers the differences between them. (Ah, but publishers are bound by the need to sell many copies to make such books profitable, and what professor is going to have the time to parse out different belief systems of these small, sometimes powerless groups?)

It is the curse of categorization. In our free market economy bigger is always better. Religions, on the other hand, do not always concern themselves with winning the most tricks. The Zoroastrians, who gave us the concepts of Heaven and Hell and much else that became standard theology in the monotheistic religions, continue to exist. In small numbers. So small that, as a religion major, I didn’t really learn about them until I began teaching classes exploring the origins of our modern religious concepts. When the modern eye assesses the importance of something, it does so by crunching the numbers. Religions have been our human means of seeking the truth since civilization began, perhaps even before. Often numbers and truth just don’t align.

‘Tis the Season

A news story last week related how a traditional park area in Santa Monica, California had been “taken over” by atheists who wanted equal time with traditional Christmas displays. The park, which houses 21 display areas generally populated by nativity scenes of one sort or another, had so many requests for space this year that a lottery was instituted—a lottery that the atheist groups won. Claiming 18 of the spaces, the atheists groups have vastly reduced the visibility of traditional Bethlehem mythology. Does anybody else feel a culture war coming on?

The whole “Keep Christ in Christmas” campaign that has been fermenting over the past decade or so has made many Christians paranoid. Society has forgotten, they claim, whose birthday we’re celebrating. A plain view of the facts, however, calls this assertion into question. No one bothered to record the date of Jesus’ birth. The stories about it, in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, were written after a lifetime of reflection by people who were not eyewitnesses to any of the events. Historians of the era mention no celestial anomalies and there are no records of crazy old Herod killing babies among his own people. (His domestic affairs, however, may be quite another story.) What is absolutely clear is that the stories have grown with the telling. Many a child can tell you the names of the three wise men. Luke doesn’t even place them at the first Christmas, does not name them, and does not say there were three. No records of Zoroastrian migrations to Israel verify this story either.

The true loss is the loss of story. We live in a society that abuses the words “just” and “only.” That’s just a myth. That’s only a story. Ancient people—from the time of Jesus—appreciated the truths a story conveys. Consider the parables of Jesus. They cite not sources neither do they seek verification. They are only stories. They are also cited as the basis of many church teachings. Even atheists can be taught to appreciate the value of stories. Who could object to a myth advocating peace, harmony, and goodwill? Even if it’s just a myth.

Santa Claus might come to Santa Monica’s rescue. Yes, diehard fans of historical veracity will say there was a saint called Nicholas. We all agree that he didn’t wear red velvet trimmed in white and that he didn’t possess magical, northern latitude cervid stock. Even before the days of forced air heat he didn’t slither down every chimney in the world in one night. Few would dispute, however, the value of giving gifts of good will. Just ask any member of the Salvation Army who appear at this season every year. Instead of arguing about whom to exclude, why don’t we invite everyone to our celebration? Jesus, angels, Santa, Jack Frost, Heat Miser, and Christopher Hitchens—what a party this could turn out to be!

Is there no room in the manger?