Tag Archives: Jesus

The Subtle Elephant

“Beer,” the list reads, then “Sex, Tacos, Weed.” At the top of the list, “Jesus.” “Which one of these is best?” the magazine page virtually shouts. Not Playboy, but Wired. At times I have difficulty figuring out what is an advertisement and what is an article in Wired. It is the future, I suppose. Anything’s for sale as long as there’s lucre to be generated. The page is topped with “Wired Insider,” so I suppose it’s a whimsical pop culture section, but I’m not really sure. The page seems to be promoting an app called Proust. I’m still pondering this list: “Jesus, Beer, Sex, Tacos, Weed.” One of these things is not like the others…

Vices

While there may be nothing inherently wrong with beer, sex and tacos (the jury’s still out on weed), such indulgences are often labeled “vices.” Jesus, until recently, never really populated such lists. Even those who do not claim divinity for Jesus of Nazareth do tend to see his teachings as embodying virtue rather than vice. In the media, however, we often see Jesus turned into a kind of addiction, a vice, if you will. What I mean is that Jesus has become a kind of iconic symbol, emptied of tolerant teachings and benevolence toward all. He has become a “white man,” who does not put up with anyone who deviates from the McCarthy-era lifestyle. He is Ozzie (Nelson, not Osborne). We know so little of the historical Jesus that it is difficult to say anything definitively, but I might suggest that he may have felt more at home at a Black Sabbath concert than watching Leave it to Beaver. There is, after all, value in shock value.

Some scholars now confer about the Iconic Book (i.e., the Bible). The Iconic Book is where the Bible is used not for what it says, but what it represents. Swearing on a Bible means nothing to an atheist, and yet we persist. These hollow symbols become powerful indicators of social norms, while losing their radical content. Many might think the Bible utterly conventional, but there would be weeping and gnashing of teeth on Wall Street if people actually read it and took it seriously. Jesus, it seems, has also become iconic. I don’t mean that icons are painted (although they are), but that he has become a hollow symbol for some. In a world where gaining as much money as possible is called “Prosperity Gospel,” despite what the iconic man in the iconic book supposedly said, I guess it isn’t unusual to find the erstwhile savior among the vices of the world.

“Our dried voices, when
We whisper together
Are quiet and meaningless”

Yes, Mr. Eliot, this is the way the world ends.

Manuscript Madness

A friend recently pointed me to a story of a “new” manuscript, recently discovered, that portrays Jesus predicting the advent of Mohammad. The article on sott.net, suggests that the manuscript, wanting to be seen by the Pope, may be the Gospel of Barnabas. Of course, the Gospel of Barnabas is already known from a medieval Italian manuscript and a new, authentic discovery would be of great excitement to epigraphists and text critics, but few others. Barnabas is not a canonical gospel and is considered by the majority of scholars to have come from centuries after the fact. Quite apart from the sensational headline “1,500 year-old Bible found in Ankara, Turkey: Vatican in Shock!” (posted in September of last year, before Francis came along), the manuscript raises a number of questions concerning what one colleague calls “the iconic book.” To be sure, there are documents yet to be discovered. The Bible, however, will not be reconstituted and the door has long been sealed shut on written revelation. What remains is the perception of sacred books.

How many movies and novels are based on the premise that an ancient document has been discovered and suddenly everything about the world changes? It is a common enough theme. This idea is based on the magical concept of scripture—the hidden wisdom of the ancients somehow overrides all that we know of the world. It lies in some cave or monastery or synagogue, waiting to be discovered, unleashing divine power. No doubt the dramatic (and dramatized) discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls plays into this mythos. Nobody knew they were there, but suddenly, new information! How many people on the street today, however, can say anything of what was contained in the Dead Sea Scrolls? They’ve been mulled over by furrowed-browed scholars for over half a century, but haven’t triggered any apocalypses, at least not yet.

There are hidden documents. Working for Gorgias Press put me in the place where I could learn about some texts kept under lock and key in remote monasteries in Syria. They are generally kept for their monetary value rather than their spiritual revelations. The manuscript on sott.net made me think of those manuscripts for the first time in years. In all likelihood, if a manuscript is being hidden it is lucre, not illumination, that is at stake. The Vatican library, researchers who’ve been there tell, requires immense patience and a willingness to be repeatedly turned away. There’s just something about those old texts. No surprise that the Bible and Qur’an lead to such fiercely protective sentiments in some believers. In the meanwhile, I wouldn’t advise selling all your possessions and anticipating the apocalypse. Unless, of course, you take some ancient documents literally.

An ancient manuscript (not the hidden one).

An ancient manuscript (not the hidden one).

White Christmas Revisited

In the light of yesterday’s post, I’d like to tip my metaphorical hat to Brian Regal of Kean University for a piece he wrote in the New Jersey Star-Ledger. Entitled “The Real Meaning of Christmas,” Regal’s piece shows the striking disconnect that comes between the image of a “Christian” Christmas and the oft-ignored words of Jesus that make him such a great example to follow. We want the image and the affidavit without having to do the hard work of loving those we don’t like. This really seems to be the heart of what was once know as gospel—it’s okay to be who you are (for those of that bent, “who God made you.”) Too often “Christian” has come to mean someone who wears their hair far shorter than Jesus, who shuns those welcomed by Jesus, and who smile far more than Jesus. My Bible says “Jesus wept.” I don’t recall any verses reading, “Jesus put on his ‘I love you’ smile.” Ours is a society that wants it both ways—all for me, but isn’t that what Jesus really wanted? You know, he must’ve smiled a lot.

Regal rightly points out that the majority of Christmas traditions are admittedly pagan, and we are glad to baptize them as long as we don’t have to let the homeless into our churches or admit equal rights to those of all genders, races, and orientations. What seems to be the real desideratum is a “white” Christmas. A white, affluent Christmas. The very idea of the ownership of a holiday characterized by giving is a phenomenon worth serious study. Religion can certainly be used to justify such self-centeredness, but it is condemned by that very same faith. What are people worried about? Christmas has been a commercial holiday essentially from its origins in the modern period. It is one of the few holidays to which nearly everyone looks forward, at least for a break from work or school, if not for a windfall of new stuff.

Privilege as blessing is a perverse theology, as is shown repeatedly in the Bible. Israel’s long line of descent is chosen from the least, the youngest, the meek. Now we are constantly told that God rewards those who are blessed, and that the poor and underprivileged have only themselves to blame. At Christmas time it may be worse than many other seasons of the year. We want not only to keep good cheer, we want to keep a holiday only partially of our own making for ourselves, and then congratulate ourselves on just how good we are. It would seem that the spirit of Christmas might lie, as the pagans said, in giving. I am not a fan of commercialism, as my regular readers know. I can’t help but think that believing one deserves special rewards for righteousness in their own eyes will only have the opposite effect. Remember: he sees you when you’re sleeping, he knows when you’re awake…

Adolph_Tidemand_Norsk_juleskik

Won’t Someone Think of the Gods?

The annual holiday tradition of fighting over peace on earth has begun. It’s difficult to attribute blame since the “Keep Christ in Christmas” crowd do have a certain historical parsimony about them. Still, it was with tongue frozen in cheek that the Freedom From Religion Foundation put up a billboard in Pitman, New Jersey, with the message “Keep Saturn in Saturnalia.” Won’t someone think of the gods? In just the short span of my lifetime (well, half-a-century is really not that long) many assumptions about American religiosity have come to be questioned. There are those who seriously believe the Greco-Roman gods exist and they do have a right not to have their religion belittled. Those who find all religions laughable, I suppose, have the right to belittle. Some are devoted to Saturn. Others take seriously the Norse gods. Belief is like that—rationality is not a huge part of it.

Megyn Kelly, an anchor on Fox News, boldly declared this past week that Santa is, by dint of historical fact, white. I suspect she wasn’t thinking of Nicholas of Myra, but rather the jolly (white) man with glandular problems and the magical ability to visit every house in the world in a single night. The historical Saint Nicholas was born in Turkey. Kelly also made an unequivocal claim for Jesus’ whiteness, although he was clearly Semitic and historical records about him are extremely dicey. Conservatism, it seems, can only be pushed so far. I tend to think the problem is with making people into gods. Once a person becomes divine, in a monotheistic system—apart from all the theological casuistry than ensues—the nature of godhood is irrevocably associated with one race only. Of course Kelly, and many Fox News fans, have co-opted Christ from Judaism and suppose he was rather Nordic, as an article on CNN’s Belief Blog notes. Kind of like Thor, for what carpenter doesn’t know how to use a hammer?

To keep (white) Christ in (white) Christmas does betray a lack of familiarity with the Christmas story. Apart from angels appearing to some shepherds, the event was obscure—in the part of town across the tracks. Even the wisest men in the world had to stop and ask directions because they couldn’t find the place. The first Christmas, in as far as we can reconstruct it, was a silent affair with only the sounds of birth and the quiet desperation of a working class family far from home. No malls stayed open late that night.

The solstice is literally the darkest day of the year, the time when the slow return to light begins its weary trek over the next six months. We think of the cold, the dark, and hope for peace. No matter the holiday tradition, you’d think that peace would be one thing we could all agree upon. But gods are jealous beings, and, technically, they belong to no human race at all.

O holy night?

O holy night?

Help from Above

Frisbee, like Kleenex and Band-Aid, is a brand name that has become generic. Since at least the time of ancient Greece people have been fascinated with flying discs, and like many kids of my generation I grew up with a Frisbee or two around the house. We didn’t have much money, and in my younger days I remember playing “frisbee” with the lids to large margarine tubs—it’s more difficult to get these to do tricks, but they fly passably well with the right flick of the wrist. When I got to college I started to hear about a new game called “Frisbee golf.” It usually involved a group of friends and their flying discs picking out a target and seeing who could get their Frisbee there in the fewest tosses. Well, college was a couple decades ago (ahem), and who has time for Frisbee in the serious adult world of trying to stay employed? When some friends asked me to join in a game of disc golf over a recent weekend I knew a couple of things had happened. First, Frisbee had been either usurped or commodified to the point that it was either illegal or gouache to use their discs to try to hit “that tree over there,” like the redneck with his shotgun on a Friday night. Second, to play the game you needed to have the right equipment. Out on the course we came across a couple of guys with “golf bags” full of discs that they had to flip through like so many CDs before each toss. I felt woefully amateur. Like golfing in jeans.

IMG_1140Fortunately my friends had discs. Scientifically engineered discs, no less. Different “Frisbees” (not a technical “Frisbee” among them, not even a Wham-o) with different weights and characteristics made for specific tasks. I thought of the famous sculpture of the discus thrower and wondered what Plato would’ve made of all this. Since we were a large group with limited discs, we each chose one to be “our” disc so that we could follow it. It was either a rare show of masculine aggression or perhaps religious curiosity that drew me to the distance disc called Archangel. Bright orange, the Archangel was emblazoned with an actual heavenly being with his (a masculine angel, this) sword. He wore a vaguely Egyptianizing headdress that brought to mind the plagues of Egypt. The disc was heavy compared to a Frisbee, and had an edge like a, well, a sword. A dull sword of course, maybe wooden as opposed to steel. That disc could fly (although it didn’t improve my score much).

Angels have had a long fascination for us mere mortals. Originally a class of messenger gods in antiquity, monotheism forced them into a subservient role where swiftness was essential. For some, such as the Angel of Death (more likely the source of the imagery behind my Archangel), weaponry was essential. Unlike the Angel of Death my aim wasn’t very accurate. Or maybe that is just like the Angel of Death. No firstborn were slain by an hour’s diversion of tossing some Frisbees around, but my thoughts had been driven back to the biblical origins of my implement. I wondered why there was no archangel of peace. A few days later it was announced that Nelson Mandela had died. My thoughts went to Gandhi. To Siddhartha Gautama. Even to Jesus. Yes, there have been those who’ve insisted on the way of peace. And many differences might be settled by a friendly game of Frisbee golf, minus, of course, the copyright infringement.

Carrie the Cross

Carrie1976With all the buzz about the new Carrie movie just released, I decided to go back and watch the Brian De Palma version again. I’ve written here before about the religious symbolism of the movie, but I have to confess to never having read the novel. This time a particular symbol stood out, and I’m not sure whether it derives from De Palma or King. Crosses abound in the 1976 Carrie. This is a bit odd because of the indeterminate religion of Carrie’s mother. Clearly she has a belief in Jesus, but an odd Jesus it is. In Carrie’s prayer closet the statue—presumably of Jesus, since it is never clearly identified otherwise—is of a man whose abdomen in pierced with arrows. Those familiar with saints immediately recognize Saint Sebastian, but the arms are outstretched, as if this poor victim were both crucified and superfluously shot with arrows. The traditional cross, however, seems to be missing in that dark room. It reappears on prom night.

While Carrie is getting ready for the prom, her crazed mother peers out the window at passing cars, telling Carrie that Tommy isn’t coming. In one shot, as two cars pass in the street, there appears an inverted white cross on the road. I supposed at first that this was a painted parking space marker, but then, this is a residential street, and no such markers appear in other shots. Carrie’s mother had accused her of being a witch, and the upside-down cross is an oft-claimed symbol of Satanism (not the same, however, as Wicca). At the prom, Tommy insists that Carrie vote for them as the prom queen and king. When Carrie makes her x, the camera angle rotates slightly to reveal the sign as a Latin, as opposed to Saint Andrew’s cross. After Carrie kills everyone and goes home, her mother stabs her and, chasing her through the kitchen, makes the sign of the cross with her knife. Finally, Sue—in a dream?—wanders to Carrie’s burnt down house to lay flowers at the foot of a “for sale” sign that is a white cross, with the clashing words “Carrie White Burns in Hell” scrawled on it.

I may have missed more since the use of the symbol only dawned when the passing cars pointed me toward it. There is a strange kind of misuse of the cross here—not visible on the Sebastian-Jesus, and ultimately also Carrie’s mother figures, but inverted on the street, a sign of pride at the voting, made with a knife by the mother, and scrawled with an arrow pointing to Hell in the final scene. Carrie’s fiery end appears to confirm her mother’s interpretation of telekinesis as witchcraft. There is no forgiveness in this film. Well, I suppose I’ll have to go see the remake now. And maybe even read the book. I need to know if I’m just seeing things or if I’m still sleep-deprived from worrying about jobs and a surfeit of imagination as October’s chill settles in.

Alien Jesus

While trawling the internet over the weekend, I came upon an interesting article that ties together religion and paranormal belief. According to ADG, a unnamed woman (already the question marks erupt) in Galilee in 1967 was visited by aliens. Instead of photographing them, as most unnamed women would, she followed their instructions to point her camera at the lake (Sea of Galilee) and snap one for the album. When she turned back around the aliens were gone, and when she had the film developed there was a picture of Jesus and a disciple or two, walking along the sea in earnest conversation. Well, one doesn’t have to be a scholar of Tobit to spot the apocryphal, and this obviously bogus story received far more hits than any of my posts do. People are fascinated by the concept, even though most of the comments show some healthy skepticism.

To me the fascinating aspect is that religion and paranormal topics hold hands so easily. That is not to suggest they are the same thing, but rather that they are both perhaps directed toward a similar goal. We find ourselves in a cold world, often. There are cruelties, atrocities, and a disheartening lack of care for others. We want to believe that somebody out there has got our backs. Is it so different to believe that God dwells in the sky than to believe that aliens do as well? What is more important than the putative fact of such celestial dwellers is the belief in them. Our minds, no matter how we may protest otherwise, are perfectly well aware of their own limitations. We can’t know everything, and so we must believe.

Many of us find ourselves in an uninspiring cycle of work, sleep, and work. Sometimes we actually even do sleep, too. Cogs in a capitalistic money machine, we leave our weekends free (sometimes) to pursue a little meaning. As much as some may castigate religion, we should not forget that without it we would not have the weekend! For a little while we can break the meaningless cycle, the treadmill upon which we heavily thump our way through five days out of every seven. Is it any wonder that so many want to believe that, like Calgon, aliens might come to take us away from our drudgery? If that doesn’t work, there’s always religious services. All you have to do is point your camera and believe.

BurnandJeanPierre