Tag Archives: Jehovah’s Witnesses

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?”

JWatchtower

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.

Watchtower

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.

No Year’s Eve

So the world’s supposed to end tomorrow. Again. These apocalypses have been coming thick and fast lately; it’s getting so that each end of the world is within sight of the previous end. Of all the strange ideas that religions have given us, the end of the world is the most insidious. While some may choose not to believe it, many politicians of record have actively attempted to provoke the end of time to force the divine hand at bringing a little bit of heaven to earth. Scary thing is, some of them had the power to annihilate us all in the process. Unlike past eschatons, however, this one derives from the interpretation of Mayan artifacts, strangely making it more believable to some people. Those exotic peoples of the past! They just knew so much more about worlds ending than we do. And I know otherwise intelligent people who believe that this is the last day of the earth.

Of course, if we take the earth’s temperature there does seem to be some cause for alarm. That’s not the Mayans’ fault, though. Some of these self-same fracking politicians have insisted that since the Second Coming is near it is alright to destroy the ecosystem that supports all life on the planet. Those are pretty high stakes if they turn out to be wrong. Oh, but they can make a healthy profit margin on the side, so at least they can go out in style. But what would a Mayan apocalypse mean to the firmly committed Christian? It would be very hard to recover from that, should Q’uq’umatz be behind it all.

The events of the past week have been more than a little rough. And the self-same politicians line up on the side of the NRA as they campaign for Jesus’ early return plan. The overall prognosis seems iffy at best. It is like the feeling the dinosaurs must’ve had on the evening of the asteroid. Some of them had brains the size of walnuts, an allegory too plain to require spelling out. What these eschatological episodes teach us is that human life is fragile. Madmen with guns remind us of the same point. I’m expecting, however, that things will be pretty much the same as ever tomorrow morning. I’ll be expected at work, the wheels of the sluggish economy will turn ever so slowly, and politicians will keep doing what they do best. Those counting on Mayan counting will find themselves in the company of Jehovah’s Witnesses and Harold Camping. All of us will find ourselves in a world where religion is perhaps the only power actually capable of total destruction. But if we wake up with aliens swarming the planet tomorrow we’ll honestly be able to say that we’d been warned.

The face of things to come?

The face of things to come?

Good-bye Lia

While The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down, by Anne Fadiman, is not about religion, it is all about religion. The tragic story of Lia Lee is one where Hmong lives, completely immersed in what we would term “religion,” came into conflict with American perceptions of what religion should be. One of the events in Lia’s life involved the government removing her from her parents for their failure to follow doctor’s orders. Fadiman notes that this has been an issue is court cases with Christian Scientists and Jehovah’s Witnesses and other groups that refuse certain kinds of medical treatment for religious reasons. Adults may refuse—it is their constitutional right—but children cannot be subjected to an adult’s religion if it endangers their lives. Here is the rub; American religion only stretches so far. Sure, many of the faithful pray for loved ones, but they also trust the doctor’s knowledge. Not too put too fine a point on it, God doesn’t seem to do the healing unless the physician is involved. For many from traditional religions, like the Lee family, that is hardly trust at all.

Much of the problem in Lia’s case came down to taking the soul seriously. It is clear that the Hmong believe, really believe in the soul. It is the essence of a person. Reductionism declares that when all the matter is burned off, no soul remains to be found. Lia’s parents, however, could tell whether her soul was present or not just by looking in her eyes. Although she never recovered from her major seizure, the physicians had tried to prepare her parents for Lia’s immanent death. Removing her from the feeding tubes and sterile conditions of the hospital, the Lees took her home where she survived for years, although in a persistent vegetive state. Even as the book ends with Lia at seven, they are hoping for her soul to return. Lia died just two months ago, at the age of thirty. She was diagnosed as terminal at the age of four.

Diversity adds color (from Wikipedia Commons)

The story of Lia Lee is sad and one with no real villains (after the Secret War in Laos, and its aftermath). One of the most interesting aspects revolves around how the Hmong observe American religion. Well-meaning missionaries tried to convert them, but psychological studies have demonstrated that those who are the worst off are those who converted to western religions. At one point a Hmong girl, at a sacrificial ceremony to placate the spirits, tells Fadiman that she’s a Mormon. In another instance a Christian family tried to give their Hmong neighbors advice before a long drive, telling them they should pray to the Lord, not their ancestors. The Hmong honestly replied that the Lord had given him too many problems in America. It seems to me that the real issue here is just how seriously religion is taken. To the Hmong, it is their life. In capitalist America, it is very difficult to make religion your life. Even clergy have to have bank accounts, bills, and oil changes—all very secular aspects of life. If religion were taken as seriously here as among the Hmong, we would be facing a very different race this November.

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.

Risky Business

Scientology has been back in the news with the divorce of Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes. Media pundits like to point out the highly unorthodox nature of Scientology, but such critiques overlook the vital nature of New Religious Movements. Many of us are raised believing that religions, to be “true,” must possess at least a modicum of antiquity. We routinely reject the science of the first century of the common era (well, maybe the Creationists don’t), but we accept without question that the religious views of the time were on-spot and unchanging. It comes as a surprise, therefore, when a new religion like Mormonism or Scientology prospers. Accusations of being money-driven are rife, but then, who has recently audited the Vatican or CBN? Religions are “non-profit” by definition, but they certainly do raise money. As players in the capitalist game, I say more power to them. Who else can make tremendous profits and claim tax-free status (apart from major corporations, I mean)? Most believers are happy to throw a few dollars in the direction of some guru who will deliver him or her from hell, at least.

The fact that true believers in revelation don’t like to face is that every religion started some place. It would be a different story were there only one religion that ever developed, but as soon as someone started to declare their belief orthodox it was only a matter of time before heterodoxy joined the conversation. In the light of this wide-open world of religious beliefs, I think that creativity has been undervalued all along. Say what they might, critics have to admit that Mormonism, Scientology, and even Jehovah’s Witnesses have to score high on the originality scale. Since Yahweh has a lot of competition in the deity market these days it will be difficult to find an adequate final arbiter.

I would like to suggest a panel of experts, like on the appropriately titled “American Idol.” Gods are often hard to pin down, even with email and Twitter and Facebook. To fill in our distinguished panel of judges, then, who might we choose? The clergy of any tradition, I’m afraid, will be biased and so we might look elsewhere. Politicians too should be excluded since their remit is exploitation. Besides, they don’t often recognize creativity as something worth funding. Where does that leave us? We can’t use the average person, because who is going to watch their peers on television. Famous people. An athlete would be a good choice since overthinking religions can lead to trouble. We might need to avoid Tebow, however. Hollywood is said to be godless, so an actor would have great appeal—besides, good looks must equate to good theology, mustn’t they? Who will our third panelist be? Probably a writer; they are creative and their names are well-known. They would add intellectual heft without having the same star status as their more visible colleagues. Funny, L. Ron Hubbard was a science fiction writer whose religion thrives in Hollywood and who enjoyed the sport of yachting. We may have our winner here!

Religion or science fiction?

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.

Witch World

Little did I realize when I posted an entry on witches two days ago that the news this week would itself become bewitched. Tuesday’s New Jersey Star Ledger contained a piece entitled “Catholics publish guide to witches and wizards.” Then the next day a former student posted a link to CBC News article headlined “Witches to face prison for false predictions.” Last week the Jehovah’s Witnesses left an issue of Awake! at my door that reveals “The Truth About the Occult.” Coincidence or black magic? Are we really in the twenty-first century? If only employment had the same staying power as superstition there would be no jobless rate to complain about!

The Roman Catholic Church in England and Wales is concerned about all the interest Harry Potter is generating. Afraid that tweens and teens might tiptoe into the dark side, the Catholic Truth Society has produced a booklet called “Wicca and Witchcraft: Understanding the Dangers.” The booklet, written by a former Wiccan, is a strange answer to J. K. Rowling given that Potter and friends are not members of the Wiccan faith. They are simply fictional witches that haven’t been grounded by the constraints of the Enlightenment. Fantasy grants them their magical powers, not the Devil. In Romania, meanwhile, witches beset by income tax laws are now facing hard time if their predictions don’t pan out. New laws in the economically depressed nation would require witching permits to be obtained and receipts to be given to customers. This is not to sweep out paganism, but to gain some lucre from it. The Jehovah’s Witnesses are just concerned that occult practices, often seen as mere entertainment, might lead the younger generation down the road to sex and violence.

I was disabused of belief in witches before I failed out of kindergarten the first time. Teaching religion and mythology classes at two major universities, I see students from many different backgrounds trying to improve their minds. But once the sun goes down a backlash against the empirical method is nightly unleashed. I’m not sure whether to pick up my Kant and Descartes or my mugwort and rosemary. Religion breeds these darker manipulators of magic, a force against which many fear God has no recourse. So in our world of high tech gadgets and space stations and cyclotrons, we still have to worry about witches. Theirs is a metaphor yet to be fully appreciated.

Weird sisters or strange attractors?

Jehovah’s Eden

As a religious studies specialist, I inhabit a world where definitive answers are comparatively rare. It is clear that my assigned Jehovah’s Witnesses case-workers are not similarly constrained. While I was out earlier this week, they left a copy of the newest edition of the Watchtower for my edification. The cover shows an Edenic garden and bears the legend, “The Garden of Eden: Myth or Fact?” Now, I thought I knew the answer to that one. So I started to read. I learned that it was because of philosophers and their nonsense that people ceased to believe in Eden. Most people in world believe there was a paradisiacal garden, way back when, so it must be fact. I also learned that the reason we can’t find Eden today is that the Flood wiped it away. Seems a shame; with proper drainage it could be as dry as Aden and as rich as Dilmun.

The story in the magazine is set up as a series of objections raised as to why the Garden of Eden is rejected by skeptics. Literalist biblical answers to the objections are then offered. Ironically, one of the most obviously missing objections is that of geology. The article states that, prior to being destroyed by the flood, Eden would likely have suffered from the devastation of earthquakes. The area, it seems, is in the earthquake belt. Still, the garden was created “some 6,000 years ago,” despite what all those earthquake-toting geologists tell us. Somebody has forgotten to set their calendar back by a few billion years.

A more serious objection missing from the critique is that of mythology itself. Those who’ve studied the background to the story of Eden realize that most of the elements in the story are recycled myths known among the Mesopotamians. Special trees, crafty snakes, people being created from clay – all these are standard elements in Mesopotamian mythology that predates the Genesis creation accounts. If modern people understood that the point of mythology is to convey truths that are beyond the factual, perhaps we wouldn’t have such insistence that Eden is fact, despite the facts of science. The Garden of Eden: Myth or Fact? Clearly myth. And that rescues the story from the burden of bearing facts it was never intended to convey.

Jehovah Jireh

They came again this week. I was, conveniently, not home when they rang the bell. One thing with which I must credit the Jehovah’s Witnesses, however, is that they do recall the identity of their targeted converts. My neighborhood missionary always addresses me by name, and although she often has different associates with her, she knows I teach Bible courses at Rutgers and when we actually talk she tries to convince me of the Witnesses’ more exacting grasp on the truth of Holy Writ. When I returned home I found a copy of Awake! tucked in the door handle. Not the current issue, but the November 2007 edition entitled, “Can You Trust the Bible?”

The Jehovah’s Witnesses resemble many of my Fundamentalist friends in that they assume if you don’t share their view of the Bible that you somehow “distrust” or “disrespect” or “disbelieve” it. Too many disses! This mono-directional view of a complex document devalues the content and power of the biblical narrative, but most people are not trained to view subjects from multiple perspectives. This is clear from Awake! One point that the magazine makes regards science: “when it comes to scientific matters, the Bible is noteworthy not only for what it says but also for what it does not say.” The writers acknowledge that a scientific worldview conflicts with the flat-earth outlook of the biblical world, but oh, what the Bible doesn’t say! This enormous argument from silence speaks volumes. When we approach the question from the point of view of what mistakes the Bible does not make, we’ve got a universe entire in which to roam.

On the question of biblical authorship, the principle of pars pro toto is utilized to justify divine authorship. The Awake! article begins, “The Bible is frank about who penned its contents.” Among the first lessons of 101 is just how much of the Bible is anonymous. The next statement, however, is wrong on several points: “Most Bible writers acknowledged that they wrote in the name of Jehovah.” Almost never does the Bible claim direct divine guidance in its writing. The credit for this goes to Pseudo-Paul in 2 Timothy – only there does an author placing in the Bible make any claims about his fellow composers having been inspired. Jehovah as a name for Yahweh is documented for the first time in the 13th century (C.E.).

I am touched that a woman who knows so little of who I really am keeps coming to my door to save me from an unpleasant afterlife. She has taken the time to find an appropriate piece of literature for my teaching interests. But, like my Fundamentalist friends, she has missed the forest for the trees. After over forty years of reading and teaching the Bible, I have my own answer for “Can You Trust the Bible?”

Pulp Bible

Everyone is an expert on the Bible. This is one of the factors that provides professional biblical scholars with generous ulcers. Everyone is an expert because they know what they believe about the Bible. The difficulty is very few people actually know much about the Bible. Belief and knowledge are very different features of the human psyche. In my introductory course on the Hebrew Bible last night, I showed the clip from Pulp Fiction where Jules exegetes Ezekiel 25.17 (which is a fictional verse concocted for the movie). This offers a springboard to discuss how the Bible is perceived in society at large. Many people believe that Ezekiel 25.17 actually reads as Jules quotes it. The writer/director of any movie may freely manipulate the Bible since they are as expert as anyone else on the subject. (Of course, Ezekiel is a safe bet for a false citation since few people have actually read the book.)

As an officially trained “expert” on the Bible who has learned the original languages and who has read far more books on the Bible than health or common sense would dictate, I often wonder about this. When the Jehovah’s Witnesses stop by, knowing that I have these credentials, they plow straight ahead and tell me what the Bible really means. They are experts as well. When my wife was pregnant and we visited the obstetrician for an initial interview, as soon as he discovered my vocation, the physician quoted Scripture for this nervous young couple before him. Would you not rather have a Bible expert deliver your first child? Where is there room for the bone fide Bible specialist?

Having read Hector Avalos’ The End of Biblical Studies some months ago, I found myself largely in agreement. In many quarters the Bible receives a privileged treatment that only creates problems. Politicians, rap artists, physicians, movie directors, and janitors are all experts on the Bible; why do we need those of us who’ve made it a life’s work? The answer, I believe, is that knowledge of the Bible is at an all-time low. Many venerate the Bible without understanding what it is. Until society gets a grasp on what it means to have so many experts on the Bible, everyone should ponder the meaning of the passage that reads, “The path of the righteous man is beset on all sides by the iniquities of the selfish and the tyranny of evil men. Blessed is he, who in the name of charity and good will, shepherds the weak through the valley of darkness, for he is truly his brother’s keeper and the finder of lost children. And I will strike down upon thee with great vengeance and furious anger those who would attempt to poison and destroy my brothers. And you will know my name is the Lord when I lay my vengeance upon thee.”

Lessing Down Your Kierkegaard

The Jehovah’s Witnesses stopped by again yesterday. They were very friendly and polite, and even remembered my name from the last visit. One of the missionaries was new to me, and she assured me that God’s name is Jehovah. She said the Bible proved this. The missionary who’d spoken to me before knew I was a former professor of religion. Nevertheless, they both worked at trying to get me to see the light. I extended to them the courtesy I extend to my students and blog readers, namely, of not revealing my own personal religious convictions. It must be really frustrating to try to convert someone when you don’t know what they already believe!

The point I never have the heart to bring up is God’s name. In fact, no one is certain as to what the divine name is in the Judeo-Christian tradition. “Yahweh” is the closest approximation, based on present conventions of transliterating Hebrew and reconstructing vowels that were never recorded. The word “Jehovah” is historically well understood. It begins with the Jewish reticence to speak God’s name aloud during the second temple period. In order to assure that a reader didn’t accidentally blurt out the divine name when reading Scripture, the Masoretes took the convention of writing the consonants of Yahweh (yhwh – Hebrew has no capital letters) with the vowels for the epithet “lord,” adonai in transliterated Hebrew. The initial J comes from the fact that to get a “y” sound in German a “j” is used. So we get the “J” from yhwh, the “a” from adonai, and alternate from there “h-o-v” (again, because of the Germanic origin of the word, a “v” was used instead of “w”) and finally, “a-h.” All together, this word, which was never used in biblical times, becomes Jehovah, a new name for God.

I admire the conviction of those who stop by a stranger’s house and present their views. When pressed to accept, however, I threw them Lessing’s rings. Gotthold Lessing once suggested that God gave humanity three golden rings: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. What God did not give was the answer to which religion was the true one. I placed this conundrum before my earnest guests, but they already had the answer that had flummoxed Lessing. I suggested that if one’s conviction is strong, now borrowing from Kierkegaard, then one must follow that conviction. No, I was told, for the Bible reveals the whole truth. I mentioned that not all religions utilized the Bible in that way. I was told the Bible reveals the whole truth. About that time I had to run off to administer a final exam in a Bible class. The exam covered Ezekiel. And I knew, with a shudder, that Ezekiel had been told to look out from the watchtower!

Ezekiel or Charles Taze Russell's watchtower?

Fear of Voodou

The Associated Press fed a story this morning entitled “How an earthquake shook the Haitian’s faith.” Among the aftershocks of last month’s horrific disaster, many groups have ignored Rush Limbaugh’s charitable advice and have gone to Haiti on humanitarian missions. The story reports how many of these groups, generally Christian, dispense their aid outside churches and that many of the native believers in Voodou are being encouraged to convert to mainstream Christianity. Voodou priests are worried about this since, in the words of one, “by rejecting Voodou these people are rejecting their ancestors and history. Voodou is the soul of the Haitian people. Without it, the people are lost.”

Many of the missionaries bearing gifts, among them Jehovah’s Witnesses, Scientologists, and members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, see Voodou as a strange and pagan religion. The fact is that Voodou is a form of Christianity blended with indigenous African religions during the unfortunate days of slavery. Retaining their African spirits in the guise of Roman Catholic saints, the slaves of the Caribbean developed a religion they could truly believe in as they were forced to “believe” in Catholicism. In mainstream Christianity their religion is viewed with fear and distrust primarily because the religion it blends with is non-European in origin. Most Christians are unaware of the blended variety of their own faith. Early Christian missionaries into Europe found it much easier to convert native gods into saints in order to convince local populations that Christianity wasn’t such as radical a switch as it seemed. The old gods could still be worshiped, only as lesser deities.

In the “New World,” Christianities continued to evolve. Today’s Fundamentalism has very little in common with the Christianities of the first century. Jehovah’s Witnesses, Scientology, and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints are all religions that have developed in or since the nineteenth century in America, quite often from blends of traditional Christianity and new religious sensibilities. Religion is not immune to evolution, and the history of religions proves that fact beyond any doubt. And yet to those who do not know the origins of Voodou it appears non-Christian and worthy of conversion. Is it not possible to help those of another variety of religion simply because they are humans in need rather than requiring a baptismal certificate in order to claim your daily bread?

A Voodou service from WikiCommons

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.