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New York Calvin

So I’m standing at the corner of Fifth Avenue and 29th Street, gazing at Marble Collegiate Church, of the Reformed Church in America.  A cold breeze is blowing, and I wish I’d thought to dress a bit more warmly.  Although the building in front of me was erected in the nineteenth century, the church was founded in 1628, making it among the oldest continuous Protestant congregations in the New World.  It is regularly passed by tourists and shoppers who give it nary a glance, not realizing that the Dutch who gave us New Amsterdam also gave us a Reformed Church that has stood the test of time in an increasingly secular New York City. 

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I am not now, nor have I ever been, a Calvinist.  That may seem odd coming from a religion scholar who attended a very Presbyterian College and earned a doctorate at a Presbyterian department at the University of Edinburgh.  Nevertheless, despite the many belief systems I’ve indulged, the Reformed wing has never appealed.  That’s not to say that I don’t appreciate what Calvinists have to offer: where would we be without the many good things Presbyterians have brought to us?  In any case, I was recently considering how I automatically equate Calvinism with Presbyterianism, and how I really need to get over that habit.  The Swiss reformers were a far more fragmented sect than the Lutheran contingent ever became.  That still shows in the many historic Calvinistic traditions out there.
 
Presbyterianism, on its own, is not a uniform denomination anymore.  For the time being, however, if we consider all Presbyterian groups as one stream of Calvinism, we need also to consider the Reformed groups.  Although all Calvinists are reformed, the Reformed Church had its historic stronghold in the Netherlands.  Doctrinal differences continued to fracture the Reformed Church into several denominations, two of the most prominent in the New World being the Reformed Church in America and its splinter, now larger, of the Christian Reformed Church (not to be confused with the Christian Church, (Disciples of Christ)).  Congregational churches, which have no overarching governing body, frequently fall into the Calvinistic theological tradition, although that is not necessarily the case.  Other Protestant denominations, such as Methodism, have equally diverse origins.  Others, like the Baptists, have an early history that is unclear even today.
 
The Calvinist theological family tree is well studied, and it stretches back from where I’m standing to Huldrych Zwingli and John Calvin and their peers, some five centuries ago.  Although it never reached the size of the Baptist and Methodist growth spurts during the Great Awakening, Calvinism did make a lasting imprint on the landscape of North America, and still continues to bring some of us out on a chilly day just to look and wonder.

History Department

Rather like an embarrassing personal blemish, many universities tend to hide the fact that they were originally servants of the church.  Ouch!  I know that hurts.  When I was working at Routledge I had to educate some of my fellow employees about the strange interaction between religion and higher education.  Most of the earliest universities were founded primarily as theological colleges.  That stands to reason, since as light slowly began to dawn at the fading of the Dark Ages, the practice of literacy had largely been the domain of clerics, and even today, the clergy are among society’s most dependable readers.  Universities sprang up because churches desired leaders who were informed—educated, even.  Men (at that point) who knew how to reason well.  This impetus eventually led to the kind of thinking that allowed science to emerge, although it soon had fights with its parents over who had the better perspective.  Some things never change.

University or church?

University or church?

Even considering the Ivy League here in the United States, we have schools that were generally founded for clerical purposes.  Harvard was founded mainly to train Puritan ministers.  Yale was intended to provide clergy and leaders to the colony of Connecticut.  Brown was founded by Baptist clergy, while Columbia owes its origins to the missionary wing of the Church of England.  Princeton was founded for the training of Presbyterian clergy.  Dartmouth’s Puritan clergy founded wanted a school for preparing missionaries.  Even non-sectarian Penn had clergy among its early leaders.  Cornell was the lone gunman of the truly secular schools.  The pattern even reaches to state universities that now cower at the thought of expanding or sometimes even maintaining their religion departments.  Rutgers, where I had the privilege to teach as an adjunct for a few years, was originally founded as an enterprise of the Reformed Church in America, scion of the old Dutch Reformed Church, thus giving rise to the small New Brunswick Theological Seminary that still sits in the middle of the College Avenue Campus of the State University of New Jersey.

Every now and again, I ponder this state of affairs.  Religion, love it or loath it, is foundational not only for higher education, but for civilization itself.  If the evidence of Göbekli Tepe is to be believed, religion may have been the very glue that brought societies together in the first place.  Despite the decline in mainline denominations, public survey evidence indicates Americans are just as religious as ever, or at least spiritual.  How quickly we forget that it was biblical mandates to go out and spread the news that led to the idea of a literate, educated society.  The lure of money and technology is great, and has managed to reshape the higher education landscape.  If you look, however, at the lists of institutions of higher education in the United States, even today, the largest subset is either currently affiliated with, or had been founded by, Christian groups wanting to offer education to their children. Today there are still hundreds of universities and colleges affiliated with religious groups.  Somehow I get the sense that the affection showed is not completely mutual.

Clearly Religion

GoingClear“There is no point in questioning Scientology’s standing as a religion; in the United States, the only opinion that really counts is that of the IRS;” so Lawrence Wright partially concludes Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief. This is an important book, and one which once again demonstrates how seriously religions should be taken. New religious movements offer a ringside seat to how orthodoxies are born. Facts may be distorted or covered up, but there is information to be had on L. Ron Hubbard, Joseph Smith, and Mary Baker Eddy. We can learn from the way their ideas may move from fiction to fact, and how intelligent people still feeling spiritual yearning can turn to a religion invented recently as well as those invented millennia ago. As Wright points out, all religions make improbable claims. Fact-checking, however, is much more difficult for periods long gone that left only meager records. The distance in time may lend ancient assertions the benefit of the doubt, but the real decision-maker is money.

Given universities’ interests in lucre, one might logically conclude that religions would be of great interest. It is telling that, especially in the case of Scientology, that the factor most important to the status of the church is its money. Religions may claim tax-exempt status, setting them apart from purely commercial enterprises. This gives religions an advantage when they are careful with their finances, and the whole question of whether a religion is a religion is not left to scholars but to the lawyers of the Internal Revenue Service. The truth of religion lies in its bank-books, not its holy books. No doubt in the case of Scientology this is because of the high-profile court cases in which the status of the religion was challenged by government agencies. Nevertheless, when it comes to the laying down of the law, only money really matters in defining a religion.

As Wright discusses, one of the problems we face is that religion is poorly defined. Nobody can really assert much beyond that religions involve belief of some kind. Beliefs, in this case, about L. Ron Hubbard and his ideas. Although facts about his life are disputed, there can be no doubt that Hubbard was an intriguing man. He was a prolific writer with great imagination, and he clearly had keen insight into psychology. A religion used to be measured by the good it produced. Now it is measured by the dollars. As Going Clear illustrates, trying to construct an unbiased account of Scientology is a fraught enterprise. Like many modern religions, Scientology is very secretive. Even the early Christians knew that if everybody could join, then the club loses its appeal. Apart from belief, religions also must have outsiders and well as insiders. In a world measured by consumerism, wealth is the surest sign of blessing. No one should be at all surprised, therefore, that it takes the IRS to decide that which used to be taken by faith alone.

Dark Sight

TimeDarkBarbara Brown Taylor is a name about which I wish to learn more. Although Time magazine predictably runs a religious-themed issue around Easter, the year’s cover story, “Finding God in the Dark,” hit some resonant chords immediately. A friend of mine writes a blog called Bleak Theology, and my own posts often linger in those nether regions where, if we’re honest, we don’t know what we might find. Barbara Brown Taylor has been exploring these themes for years on a spiritual journey that has her deciding, as many of us know, that the dark is not evil. Fear is a kind of spiritual elixir. I watch horror movies. I read gothic novels. I awake daily before the sun, and do my best thinking in the dark. The key, as I would humbly suggest, is to be honest about life. When I preached, the students who understood that would say they appreciated my honesty. After all, before the beginning, all was darkness.

The article on Taylor, by Elizabeth Dias, is moody but appreciative. Taylor has the experience of being an Episcopal priest, a professor, a preacher, and a recognized author as her journey has led her to appreciate the dark. Some of us understand that the biblical books that are the darkest—Ecclesiastes, Job, and Psalms—are also the most honest. These are books to read in the dark.

Nature has evolved us to trust our eyes for survival. Fear of the dark is not something instilled in humans by protective parents—it is a consequence of having to survive in a jungle where you too are prey. We can’t see well at night, so that is the time we close our eyes and make ourselves vulnerable to the nocturnal beasts. Those beasts are, of course, spiritual. Somewhere on our journey to shallow religions of the modern era, we’ve come to believe that religion is all about sunshine and light. Evangelicals often believe that feeling good is a sign of blessing and depression is from the devil. Religion, however, from the beginning, has not shied away from the heavier side of human existence. If all were clear and bright, what need would we have of religion? In our experience, however, life has a substantial amount of trials and difficulties. There’s a lot of fumbling in the dark. If we can learn, with Barbara Brown Taylor, that not seeing is true insight, we might indeed learn a lesson about life in a world that is dark, literally, half of the time.

Take a PAAS

Like so much of life, PAAS Easter Egg coloring kits were the result of an accident. To be more specific, a chemical accident in New Jersey, something which is far from rare. This particular accident, however, had a fortuitous side-effect: the brightly colored (but not radioactive) Easter Egg dye that many of us associate with childhood. Around 1880 Newark druggist William Townley spilled colored dye onto his suit, leading him to individually package holiday colors, according to a story in the New Jersey Star-Ledger. That individual packaging allowed for a full set of egg colors to be sold together and the PAAS brand was soon launched.

The idea of coloring Easter Eggs, like so many Christian traditions, likely has pagan roots. Eggs were a sign of new life with the coming of spring in many cultures (although boiling the poor things rather defeats the purpose). Christians adopted the egg as a resurrection symbol—the chick pecking out of its shell was like the resurrected Jesus bursting from the tomb, albeit somewhat less dramatically. Watching a newborn chick hatch is an emotional experience. At the 4-H Fair, standing around the incubator in the chicken tent, you can see wobbly, uncertain, tiny birds tentatively trying to assess this strange new world that is colder and somehow more compelling than life in the shell had ever been. The mighty son of God they’re not, but they are much more like us, looking for answers and taking small steps until they’re more certain of what they face.

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The coloring of eggs has origins lost in antiquity. Nobody’s quite sure why it was done beyond the fact that they look nice. Romans ate eggs as part of their spring celebrations, and Christians came up with a story to explain colored eggs. The legend claims that Mary Magdalene, in trying to convince the emperor of the truth of the resurrection, turned eggs from white (or brown, as they likely were in those days) to red in her open hands. This proof, however, failed to convince the Caesar. What seems certain is that pagans liked coloring eggs so this provided a new source of evangelism to the Christians who assimilated the practice. Like Christmas, the Easter Egg has become a thoroughly cultural symbol—since Easter comes on a Sunday employers aren’t obligated to give the day off, so everyone can celebrate. Children hunt eggs on the White House lawn and we can still expect everyone to be in the office on Monday morning. Resurrection, after all, can only reach so far.

Pair of Docs

I’m not planning any trips anytime soon, but if I were I’d give Pair of Docs Travel a look. The founders of Pair of Docs are friends of mine who’ve also landed in that black hole of academia: hired, established, dismissed, forgotten. In my days at Nashotah House, eager to escape, I talked to Nelia Beth and Joel about an adjunct teaching stint at Carroll College (now Carroll University) in Waukesha, Wisconsin. They arranged for a couple of classes for me, and even wished me luck as they knew they were being forced out. Not for performance or lack of competence, but because of politics. Shortly after their moorings were thwarted, I too was cast off without an anchor. I’ve been adrift ever since. Last week, however, I had a letter from my old colleagues letting me know that they’ve gone into the travel agent business. Give them a chance—I’m sure you’ll be pleased.

An unspoken moral dimension is at work in higher education. Actually, the dimension is immoral. Those who embark on the track of higher education are culled from their teenage years by their teachers and professors. Having taught quite a long time myself, I know that a promising student stands out like a glowing rock in the sand. You know that this person is sharp enough to go far. You encourage, you advise, you try to open doors. The doctorate is awarded and before the silly academic hood touches those untried shoulders, you’ve just created another beggar to line the streets. A tin cup might be a better emblem of higher education than a diploma. At least it’s more useful.

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Universities keep cranking out Ph.D.s because they need the money graduate students bring to the programs. The graduate students, for the last two decades at least, have been the sacrificial victims. I have to wonder about the future of a society that takes those deemed most able by their many teachers and demoralizes them to the point of endless depression and penury. In some cultures teachers are treated like the high-achievers that they actually are. The future rests with them, not entrepreneurs. Not that you would be able to tell the difference from our sluggish economy. Seems to me that maybe we don’t have enough slaves to row this galley. And if you’re wanting to book a place on a ship or plane, maybe it would be considered a form of social justice to give Pair of Docs a try. If I could afford to travel, I know I would.

Ham Awry

Ham, in the movie Noah, is a conflicted figure. I felt a slight chill, I’ll have to admit, when the carnivore Tubal-Cain asked him his name, reminiscent as it is of pork. Of the sons of Noah he alone bears the impossibly stylish short hair his father seems to favor, and yet, he is one of four men alive and the only one without a mate. Japheth is young enough to wait for his twin nieces to grow up, and the ancestor of the Semites, Shem, has already begun his fruitful multiplication, just when humanity seemed at an evolutionary bottle-neck. Ham found a wife but couldn’t keep her. Noah leaves her to be trampled to death as he takes his son to the gentlemen’s club known as The Ark. The rain has already begun to fall.

In the Bible Ham gets short-shrift as well. Having seen Noah naked after he discovers alcoholism, Ham bears the brunt of his father’s wrath. Noah, perhaps still hungover, curses Ham’s son (not appearing in the movie), Canaan. From the biblical point of view, the reason is perfectly clear: when Israel arrived in the promised land, the Canaanites already lived there. Given that the promise was to Shem’s descendants, a genocide was ordered and probably the more liberal among the marauding Israelites felt a bit of guilt about that. No worries—like ethnic minorities in horror movies, the Canaanites were created to be killed. Ham, however, isn’t cursed for his voyeurism. Still, according to later interpretation, he is the ancestor of the Africans as well, and the “curse of Ham” was used for a biblically literate society as a justification of slavery. After all, Ham had had an eyeful, and it was only fitting, they reasoned, that his n-teenth-hundredth generation should suffer cruelly for it. How’s that for air-tight reasoning?

According to the movie, Ham decided to leave in voluntary exile. Perhaps he hoped that like Cain he might find an unlikely spouse in an unpopulated world. He had grown apart from the new Adam, welcoming Tubal-Cain aboard the ark, and keeping him hidden until Noah threatened to kill the future of all humankind. Strangely, it seems that Ham is the proximate cause of the salvation of all humanity, and he become a self-sacrificial scapegoat in the Icelandic scenery. He declares that his deceased chosen mate was good, and Noah had cursed her as well. In the Bible cursing is freely dispensed, and it is considered adequate to its task. Somehow that curse transmuted to a nobility in the film, for Ham is the most like Noah of all his children. And even today that self-same Bible is used to justify a genocide in a world where myth is taken for reality.

Noah doesn't like Ham

Noah doesn’t like Ham

The Lost Forest

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Asherah has, from lack of new material, fallen into a quiet retirement among the gods. For a while there no shortage of new books appeared, including my first, which explored many aspects of this shy goddess. While academia has pushed her to her logical limits, she has thrived in the world of popular imagination. I was reminded of this during a recent visit to Grounds for Sculpture, a whimsical park in Hamilton, New Jersey featuring the work of many artists. The appreciation of art works on many levels. A piece of sculpture can take on new meanings when viewed from different angles, and a piece that seems to make no sense can become imbued with meaning when new perspective is added. Sometimes it is the title of the sculpture. A friend had pointed out to me last year that one of the artworks was entitled, Excerpts of a Lost Forest: Homage to Ashera, by Tova Beck-Friedman. Ironically the sculpture is from the same year as my finished dissertation on Asherah, a continent away. I must have seen this sculpture many times, but without knowing what it was, had paid no attention.

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Asherah is often considered a goddess of trees. My research indicated, however, that such an association was premature. Of course, any discourse that has the Harvard University stamp of approval is decidedly fact, despite contrary evidence. Nevertheless, the dendrite nature of the goddess has persisted into popular culture and even into the world of abstract sculpture. The loss of a forest is, no matter whether goddesses are involved or not, tragic. Asherah has become the protectoress of trees.

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The nature of this particular lost forest isn’t clear. At first it might appear that a fire has gone through, claiming the vitality that once thrived in green leaves and mottled bark. I sense that something more is happening here. Asherah is, above all, the divine female. Here single-most constant role in antiquity was as the spouse to the high god. The loss of the forest still speaks to the on-going repression of women. We like to think that our society is headed toward equality, but progress is painfully slow. As usual with lack of momentum, religious institutions lead the way in conservatism. In the largest Christian body in the world, and in some of the fastest growing religions on an international scale, women are kept from leadership roles on the basis of gender alone. Monotheism declares there’s one god for two sexes. Those who experience life from the other side are like trees falling in the forest. We still don’t know if anybody hears.

The Plague

Plagues&Peoples Sitting on the bus next to some guy with a consumptive cough may not be the best place to read Plagues and Peoples. But William H. McNeill’s book is considered a kind of modern classic, and since the Middle Ages have been on my mind, I persisted anyway. I did wrap my scarf around my face, though. Plagues and Peoples isn’t just the story of the Black Death, however. It is a sweeping account of pandemic and endemic outbreaks and how they form recognizable patterns with human populations. Perhaps the most striking aspect of McNeill’s study is how determinative plagues have been for many decisive aspects of human history, including religious ones. Indeed, religion keeps cropping up in the book. One reason is because of the roles religions play in human suffering—to be more precise, I should say in trying to alleviate human suffering. (Yes, some religions definitely cause it as well, but that’s a story for another time.) McNeill even suggests that fear of disease might have led to the parting of the ways between Swiss and German Reformers, playing a role in the divergence of what would become the Presbyterian and Lutheran flavors of Protestantism. The spread of some religions was facilitated by the ravages of disease.

During the period of the spread of the Plague, however, McNeill notes that those cultures attended by Christian and Buddhist institutions managed to fare better than irreligious, or, perhaps more accurately, folk-religion ones. Once people figured out Plague was contagious, they sensibly kept away from the sick, but the moral teachings of Christianity and Buddhism compelled the religious to tend to the ill, with the result that more people in those religious traditions survived. That’s not a universal declaration on McNeill’s part, but it is a fact worth bearing in mind. The risk to self paid off when more individuals cared for each other rather than just heading for the hills when the Black Death came along. On the other hand, religions frequently insist on behavior that spreads disease as well. The great pilgrimages to Mecca or the Ganges often brought great crowds together where disease could quickly spread. The passing of the peace in some churches is more like the passing of the plague.

In ancient, pagan times, disease had its own deities. In ancient Ugarit, Resheph, the archer, was also the god of pestilence. Pestilence frequently accompanied the horrors of warfare, and even Apollo opens the Trojan War by firing his arrows at the Greek troops. Gods are the source of disease. One of the ancient truisms, which may not be taken as true today, is that the force that wounds is also the force that heals. Instead of ignoring Resheph, you pray to him, make offerings to him. He can slay, but he can also heal. In the monotheistic and even non-theistic traditions McNeill mentions, the focus shifted to the care of those suffering rather than the offering of sacrifice to unhearing gods. Even the Romans were impressed by Christian care for one another. Of course, that was well before Obamacare offered the hope of medical treatment for those cut off from lucrative employment. The Christian response now, it seems, is to complain about others taking advantage of my surplus cash made over to a program to prevent illness in one’s fellow citizens. Take the bus to work, you’ll see what I mean.

Better Watch Out

Among the more intriguing mythologies of Noah, the movie, is the presence of the “Transformer-like” Watchers. The more biblically literate of the film’s viewers will know that Watchers are mentioned in the Bible, but in the book of Daniel—chronologically the latest book in the Hebrew Bible—and not in Genesis. Daniel does not tell us what Watchers are, but it uses the term in parallel with Holy Ones, implying that they are angels. In the apocryphal book of Enoch, there is quite a bit of mythology concerning Watchers, and they are tied back to the flood story by the strange first four verses of Genesis 6 that note the sons of God saw human women were beautiful and took them, populating the earth with giants as a result. The Bible, as typical, is very cryptic about all of this, leaving imagination to fill in the gaps. Watchers were later associated with fallen angels, and they are sometimes referred to as Grigori, the Slavic form of the name. Biblically we know practically nothing of them.

Watchers have long had a home in the paranormal speculation crowd. Associated with ancient astronauts, a modern mythology has grown up around who the Watchers supposedly really were. This is an outgrowth of the Judaic myth that came from the non-biblical texts that themselves grew out of such esoteric references as those to Enoch, nephilim (fallen ones), and giants, in Genesis. That antediluvian world was a fascinating period in which just about anything goes, but nothing is explained. Even the ark itself is described in terms so vague that it really can’t be reconstructed precisely. The Watchers, according to Genesis in any case, weren’t there. One gets the sense that ancient readers, anxious for a logical roadmap of the divine world, were quick to fill in the gaps that the Bible leaves.

Although Christian theology would eventually declare God omniscient, this does not characterize the deity of the Hebrew Bible. Even before the discovery of Oceania or the New World, the ancient Mediterranean and West Asia were too large for any one God to know it all. Watchers were, most likely, members of the divine council whose purview was to view. Keep an eye on what people were up to. Fallen angels, later equated with demons, were a convenient way to explain evil in a world made by a deity who is only good. And who doesn’t know that feeling of being watched, especially when being naughty? According to Genesis 6 not even the children of God are exempt from such behavior. The Bible gives us plenty to work with, if we’re only willing to use our imaginations.

Somebody's eye is watching...

Somebody’s eye is watching…

Roman Undead

ZombieBibleLike most monster movie fans, I enjoy a zombie film now and then. I’ve even heard some very sophisticated people commenting positively on Shaun of the Dead. One of the standard features of the zombie is its forthright impossibility—reanimated dead are the stuff of humanity’s earliest nightmares, but in our rational minds we know that bodies missing vital organs, limbs, and blood, don’t just get up and try to eat the living. That doesn’t prevent me from watching zombie movies, and even considering participating in a zombie walk. Nevertheless, I’d not read any zombie books. That suddenly changed when I sat down with Stant Litore’s What Our Eyes Have Witnessed: The Zombie Bible. Literally the day I started reading it, a publisher sent me a copy of Suzanne Robb’s Z-Boat. I was surrounded by zombies.

I had decided to read What Our Eyes Have Witnessed because I was curious what a Zombie Bible might be. I quickly learned that it was an apologetic exercise where zombies are used as a vehicle for evangelization. It was difficult, however, to take the idea seriously. When a zombie breaks through the door of a Roman villa at the start of the book, I found the thought strangely funny. Many zombie movies go in that direction, acknowledging that they could never really happen, so they decide to give viewers a laugh or two along the way. Litore’s parsimony, however, became clear right away. This is a retelling of the martyrdom of Polycarp, but with zombies. It is a curious mix of Roman history, Christianity under persecution, torture porn, and the assurance of salvation. The premise is that Cain’s slaying of Abel resulted in zombies and their soulless souls must be put to rest. If they bite you, you become a zombie—you know the story. Meanwhile, the Roman authorities believe the Christians are to blame and decide to kill off the historical Polycarp.

The story dwells on the emotions of the Christians, in a kind of maudlin evangelicalism, as they try to avoid both flesh-eating zombies and Roman authorities. Zombies, it is said, are driven by their constant hunger and only Christianity has the true bread. This is a creative account of how the early Christian movement dealt with persecution. The zombies, however, feel somewhat superfluous in that situation, for the terror of imperial persecution was real enough. The zombies, however, aren’t after brains, and they don’t speak. They want to eat and the only thing they can digest, even if they have no stomachs, is other people. As an allegory it almost works, but zombies are a kind of fifth column in what was a very real struggle for early religious tolerance. Ironically, the undead and resurrection are never juxtaposed, although they are the most obvious way to connect the dots.

Disconnect the Dots

In the on-going loss of touch between academia and the world outside, we forever hear of the triumphal march of secularism. Academics are often loath to see the habits of the laity as being of much significance. In the book industry, however, publishers have to pay attention to what the public reads. This is one reason, I’m discovering, that some academics find it difficult to publish. Some research topics just don’t reach the wider readership’s interest. It’s an editor’s job to try to match readers with books. Among the tools we use are magazines such as Publisher’s Weekly and the Library Journal. Although it is impossible to say what people are actually reading, these periodicals trace buying and checking-out habits. And it doesn’t take a genius to see that books somehow tied to religion are frequently at the top of the list. One of the great industry trackers, Bowker, even has three distinct databases for book sales: children’s, academic, and Christian. Religion, in other words, is of tremendous interest.

IMG_1279In the January issue of the Library Journal, for instance, there is the list of top books checked out of libraries since the last reporting period. Topping the non-fiction lists? The top four spots are occupied by books tied in some way to religion: David and Goliath, Killing Jesus, I Am Malala, and Zealot. People want to know about religion. Academics just don’t want to hear it. As a perpetual bride’s maid, metaphorically speaking, of the higher education that jilted me almost a decade ago, I hopefully watch hiring trends as the rejection letters pile up in my inbox. It is a diminishing pool. Look at the industry reporting tools: religion is irrelevant at best, puerile or worse when it comes to measuring maturity. People are dying over it, but we’d rather just not know. No wonder they call it the ivory tower—spotless as, well, a bride.

It is often a surprise to many academics how few people buy their books. As someone who had written a couple of academic tomes, I know how I daydream that my work on some obscure topic will take off and suddenly appear in the Library Journal, or Publisher’s Weekly. In actuality, the reading public will decide on the basis of what publishers make available. A writer such as myself, an independent scholar, lacks credibility and is not asked to write books. And universities aren’t hiring scholars of religion much any more. Some seminaries have even moved more toward the secular in their hiring practices, since, universities tell them, that’s the direction things are going. Those who buy books, or check them out from libraries, however, are telling a much different story. But we are much too sophisticated to look for signs among the laity. The more we progress in knowledge, the less we really know.

Floaters and Swimmers

Noah seems to have found a renewed audience these days. Nothing like a major motion picture to make even one of the most famous biblical characters even more notable. And the spin-off stories are now considered news as well. One of the many impossible stories of the Bible, the ark, as scholars have long known, would not have been a physical possibility. Quite apart from the building in days before metal smelting was invented, there was the problem of volume. Since evolution is ruled out de rigueur, each separate species had to have been represented, since no changes are allowed from that time to this. The sheer number of them, especially since new ones are being discovered even now, was deemed impossible to fit on an ark of even biblical dimensions. Add in the food necessary for 150 days, especially considering the carnivores, and the human-power required to care for all those beasts (only eight are permitted by Genesis, and Noah was 600 years old at the time) and you get the picture. Then Mesopotamian flood stories even older were discovered. It was quickly recognized that this was a myth with a larger message to tell.

Now, according to geobeats, and to the relief, I’m sure, of Russell Crowe, physics students at the University of Leicester have calculated that the ark could have floated. The story, in a one-minute sound bite, is a little shy on details. The students used the biblical cubit, and figured there were 35,000 distinct species at the time. I’m not sure where that number originates, but it doesn’t take into account how Noah got the koala’s to swim from Australia. According to present evidence, the earth is home to about eight-million-seven-hundred-thousand different species. And since they can’t evolve, that’s an awful lot of swimmers.

According to the university website, this was not intended as an exercise in biblical literalism. “The aim of the module is for the students to learn about peer review and scientific publishing. The students are encouraged to be imaginative with their topics, and find ways to apply basic physics to the weird, the wonderful and the everyday,” according to Dr. Mervyn Roy, the instructor. The students, working the math angle, didn’t expect the results to work. That they did surprised everyone. Except Noah, one presumes. The story makes clear that the number of animals was used to calculate mass, not dimensions, so squeezing all the beasts in might have been quite another chore altogether. Miraculous, one might say. As for me, I am waiting to see that pair of koalas swim from Darwin to the Persian Gulf, and then back again once the waters finally recede.

Don't forget to see the movie!

Don’t forget to see the movie!

Heaven Can Wait

“Like a good neighbor, State Farm is there.” So the jingle goes. Or went. I’ve only met my upstairs neighbors once. Twice now. Apparently last weekend I slept through the fire alarm—one of the dangers of awaking ridiculously early on a daily basis. The neighbors found the source of the smoke and turned off the furnace in the basement, but told me first thing in the morning before the coffee really kicked in. I avoided a close call, perhaps. What if they’d not been home?

I have no delusions about understanding how the Internet works. I’m still trying to figure out the telegraph. Perhaps having this inconsequential blog has put me on somebody’s radar, or maybe it’s just some bored robot that searches for strange combinations of words in the wee hours of the night. In any case, I ended up with an email with the trailer for Heaven Is For Real embedded in it. I recall when the book was on the New York Times bestseller list, and I suppose the Easter weekend release date is no coincidence, but the trailer still bothered me a bit. It’s not the resurrection part—the film industry wouldn’t get very far without that trope—but it is the implications of what heaven would be like. I haven’t read the book, but apparently Colton Burpo had a near-death experience and then for a considerable time afterward began describing things that were impossible for him to know. A miscarriage where his sister died, what his grandfather looked like as a young man, what his parents were doing when he was dead in the hospital. Talk about your spooky effects at a distance!

Despite my penchant for watching scary movies, I don’t think I’ll see Heaven Is For Real. There’s just too much emotional build-up here, and Life After Life traumatized me for weeks a couple decades back. Still, I am very interested in the possible explanations for what might have been going on. Near-death experiences have never been adequately explained. Scientists suggest that a lot can happen in a complex brain in a matter of nano-seconds, and we have no chronograph precise enough to know whether the thoughts and images happened before death, during death, or during resuscitation. Still, how people frequently know precisely where others were, who were not in the room at the time, and how they heard things that, medically speaking, they couldn’t have heard, remains eerie and hopeful at the same time. What does appear to be without question is that consciousness is far from being explained.

Botticini's vision

Botticini’s vision

Heaven is always described as pleasant. That concept differs radically for people, and you have to wonder how it can be one-size-fits-all. Some people prefer to be in crowds, while others like to be alone. Some like it hot. Some like it cold. And those who experience near-death phenomena often report having a body of some sort “up there.” Some people would prefer a different body. According to the trailer, Colton says we’re all young over yonder. For me, such things are far more about questions than answers. We don’t know what goes on after death. Nearly every religion ever invented says that clearly there’s more to the story. Some say we come back, others say we stay away. Maybe it is different for each. Maybe it is just a matter of having good neighbors after all.

Sowing the Wind

F5On May 31 in 1985, I was working at a church camp outside Uniontown, Pennsylvania when some severe storms rolled through the area. I had trouble sleeping through the thunder and lightning. I awoke the next morning to hear the news, in groggy disbelief, that tornadoes had invaded the county where my family lived. Frantic for their safety I tried to phone, but lines were down. It turned out all right—the nearest twister had been about five miles away from my home. This event was a shock because I grew up believing we never had tornadoes in Pennsylvania. I have always been terrified of them. I suppose that’s why I wrote my little book on weather in the Psalms. I just finished reading Mark Levine’s F5: Devastation, Survival, and the Most Violent Tornado Outbreak of the Twentieth Century. I’m not sure why I’m compelled to read about what scares me so much, but I suspect it’s because tornadoes have a whiff of the divine about them. Indeed, Levine’s book makes several reference to religious imagery when describing the utter destruction of Limestone, Alabama during the Super Outbreak of April 1974. It gives me little comfort that the storms that raked Ohio, Pennsylvania and Ontario eleven years later were the second deadliest outbreak following that of the book’s exploration, up to that time. There’s so much left to chance, with tornadoes.

Despite the complete lack of any intentionality behind the raw forces of nature, the phrase “finger of God” has become a fixture in the tornadic lexicon. Perhaps it is because the human perception of divine intervention has always been sporadically applied. One person’s miracle is another’s nightmare. Obeying only the complex rules of meteorology, the weather has ways of its own that even computer models cannot yet fathom. We still stand helpless in the face of the tornado. I have often thought, without a whole lot of data to back me up, that weather has played a major role in the human understanding of the divine. Quite apart from the obvious celestial orientation, the weather is easily forgotten until it turns bad, and when it does there is nothing humanly possible to do about it.

In April of 2011 a super outbreak of 358 tornadoes swept through the eastern United States and Canada, killing 348 people. In terms of damage, it was one of the costliest natural disasters in US history. And the capriciousness of the tornado stands at the center of it all. F5 is a hard book to read. The story practically turns its own pages, but the loss in human terms in the cold face of a planet that doesn’t exist for us is sobering indeed. Many religious people in the south were asking how God could allow children to be killed and hundreds of people maimed both physically and mentally for the rest of their lives. They prayed for answers that never came. And this may be the cruelest aspect of the apparently random nature of the weather. It maintains the right to kill, and prayers seem to bounce back from that brazen sky that comes just before a tornado strikes, and especially afterwards. Skies are silent. When they are not, it is time to duck and cover.