Some professors are more creative than mine ever were. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. Even today “old school” means getting it done the arduous, nose-to-the-grindstone way. A friend of mine, however, is in Turkey where a class on social, political and religious relations has her involved in a role playing game (RPG in internet-speak) where the students take on the roles of the participants at the Council of Nicaea and argue the perspectives of those parties. What a great way to learn what minutiae set ablaze entire worlds! For those of you who don’t follow ecumenical councils, Nicaea was the big one. Depending on whom you trust, there were seven ecumenical councils that early Christians accepted, although others had gone their own direction before the first council (Nicaea) even began. Historians are now aware that Christianity was never a unified religion, just a varying number of winners and losers vying for who had the right to call themselves the true followers of Christ.
Constant Constantine keeps the halo.
Nevertheless, the Council of Nicaea was one of the pivot-points on which all of history in the western world turns. Seem like a sweeping generalization? It is. But an honest one. Nicaea was the opportunity for the first Christian emperor, Constantine, to set in motion the swirling whirlpool of politics and religion that has never truly left the world ever since. Already before 325 C.E. there had been endless bickering about who Jesus really was, when Easter should be celebrated, which books belonged in the Bible (that most political of books), and who had authority over whom. The big question was really the relationship of Jesus to the Father, or, the first instance of “who’s your daddy?” Over questions like these, given history’s long view, thousands of people have died.
It’s not unusual to hear that the Council of Nicaea was the last time all Christians agreed on the major points. Many churches still recite the Nicaean Creed on a regular basis as a symbol of that unity. It is clear, however, already from the period of Paul’s letters (the earliest Christian literature) that differences of opinions had arisen among the first generation of disciples. Those we quaintly call Gnostics were among the earliest believers and they managed to survive, transmogrified, past all of the authoritative councils of the church. The very idea of ecclesiastical authority is one of power. Who has the might to make right? And it was a chance to be seen among the ecclesiastical elite. Nicaea left out, most famously, the Arians. And if the media is anything by which to judge contemporary Christianity, the majority of the Religious Right would fall into that camp as well. Recite with me now, “I believe in…”
Posted in Higher Education, Posts, Religious Origins, Religious Violence, Sects
Tagged Arians, Christianities, Constantine, Council of Nicaea, Easter, ecumenical councils, Gnostics, Higher Education, Jesus, Paul, Turkey
There’s a hole in the bottom of the sea, if we are to believe childhood songs. News reports this past week, however, have suggested that just the opposite applies to the Sea of Galilee. According to Science on NBC, a huge stone structure, larger than Stonehenge, rests at the bottom of the lake over which Jesus reputedly walked at the height of a storm. To the untrained eye, this stone pile looks like just that—a stone pile. The problem is that there is no natural source for the mound, and it seems highly unlikely that it was built under the water. This astonishing find is only one of the many underwater structures known that seem to defy conventional chronologies and logical behaviors. If this gigantic cairn was built on land, the means remain a problem. It is one thing to climb a conventional pyramid, complete with ramps and sledges, and quite another to mount a mound of apparently random stones to drop another on top. Perhaps it was built under water after all, like one of those tantalizing toys where you try to land your penny in the cup at the bottom of a tank of water.
Pacman’s Sea of Galilee from Wikimedia
Ancient monuments are one of the great fascinations of antiquity. When no rational explanation is forthcoming, a religious one will be declared. Without written records, we know nothing of the real purpose of Stonehenge or Avebury, let alone Galilee-henge. With the pyramids of Egypt we have a better set of data, and we can feel justified calling them religious structures. But why were ancient people building massive rock mounds in what was to become the Sea of Galilee? The place has irrevocable religious associations to the modern mind. Did it possess such connections in the deep pre-Israelite period as well? The false mountain of Silbury Hill, not far from Stonehenge, comes to mind. People are mountain makers.
Cairns have been among the most persistent of human monuments, but what makes this new finding of interest is its location. Baptized in the very lake that holds the headwaters of River Jordan, the mysterious mound has already claimed its sanctity. Who built it, why and when, will take backseat to the fact of its holy location. Archaeologists will eventually dive and probe and will declare an anthropologically sound explanation for this newly found, artificial, miniature mountain. Mountains and gods go together, however, as readily as offering plates and churches. Whatever this newly discovered structure may turn out to be, it will always be a religious site for those who believe.
Posted in Archaeology, Bible, Current Events, Posts, Science
Tagged Avebury, cairn, divine mountains, Israel, Jesus, pyramid, Sea of Galilee, Silbury Hill, Stonehenge
At least a decade had passed since I watched The Truman Show. Jim Carrey has gone on to achieve an over-the-top kind of fame, but Truman is a thoughtful movie that raises several troubling questions. It is also one of the films of the 1990s that shamelessly cast an uncaring god (the not so subtly named Christof) against the goofy, but serious Truman Burbank. The movie is old enough not to worry about spoilers, so a quick run-down might refresh other hazy memories. Truman is the star of a show where a massive set that includes an entire island has been built around him. The vision of Christof, an unwanted baby is recorded from birth in an artificial, “perfect” world that revolves around him. Until he begins to notice events that, in the real world, would be paranormal. Objects falling from a clear sky, dead people reappearing, fake sets under construction. Determined to learn the truth, he faces his fear to escape by literally walking through a door in the sky.
Christof is “the creator.” From his base in the sky, he looks down on Truman as his star “son” grows to a Christ-like 30 years of age. He is protected from all harm, yet terrified of anything that might aid his escape from the ante-world he inhabits. When he slips the cameras and begins to make his way across the water, Christof, still not wanting to relinquish the ruse, throws a storm at Truman’s sailboat, striking it repeatedly with lightning. “Hit him again,” he growls to his crew. “Again!” It is difficult to watch as the loving god is angered to the point of destroying his only son. When Truman literally reaches the end of his world, he walks on the water to reach the stairway to heaven. Metaphors are flying thick and fast. Christof breaks in as a voice from the sky to convince Truman that his life will be perfect if he continues to pretend that reality is only what it seems to be. His devoted fans cheer as Truman ascends and walks through that door into another reality.
Many books on the theology of film have appeared over the past decade as it has become clear that people are very much affected by what they see on the screen. Our brains resonate with what we are seeing to such a degree that movies participate in our perceptions of reality. In an increasingly secular world, we have come to distrust our gods. This truth has echoed through many movies in the past several years. Although not living up to the hype, The Clash of the Titans—the remake—had classical heroes disputing the power of the gods. Truman doesn’t go that far. We are never informed about what life after the delusion is like. The hole in the sky is black. We know that on the other side, our world, there will be terrible disappointments and tremendous sadness. It may be that there will be no gods at all on this side of the studio. Although showing its age a little, The Truman Show still speaks volumes about the religious experience.
Posted in Just for Fun, Movies, Popular Culture, Posts, Weather
Tagged Clash of the Titans, creation, Heaven, Jesus, Jim Carrey, The Truman Show, theology of film
Famed swing state Ohio is back in the news with Jesus in the front lines. It was an unlikely setting to notice such a thing. I was sitting in a conference room at work, awaiting the start of a meeting. A laptop was set up with a projector, and the homepage cast upon the screen was msn.com. There, on the wall at work was Jesus’ name.
The story has to do with a public school in Jackson City. A student group had donated a portrait of Jesus to the school in 1947, but in a multicultural world the constitution sometimes has to take on the Prince of Peace.
While the legal issues are thorny, I have an even more probing question to ask. What makes a portrait a religious object? There is a fair bit of dispute about the historical Jesus—who he really was, where he was from. Despite the sangfroid of the New Atheists, there is little reason to doubt that there was a historical person Jesus. If that is the case, what makes his picture any different than that of Woodrow Wilson or Ronald Reagan? Or Churchill, with his religious-sounding name? One could argue that we don’t know what Jesus looked like—and this is true—but neither could we really identify many historical figures before the advent of photography.
The making of a picture into a religious object comes down to intent. Intent on the part of those who hung it, and on the part of those who view it. The 1940s were a different era. The Second World War was just ended, America was proudly Christian after fighting for the cause of truth, justice, and, well, the American way. Could the school group have donated Jesus in that era as the portrait of a great man? Without supernatural implications? I suspect we all know the answer to that.
Fast forward a few decades. The world has changed drastically. We are multicultural. The internet entertains us with such stories as this. If not for the internet, and a casually chosen homepage, I would never have even heard of Jackson City, Ohio. Is it possible that we could look at a picture of Jesus in our day without religious adoration? Quite possibly. But the furor raised by the religious right every time a perceived slight stirs up the dust would seem to make such an association impossible. Any prominently displayed picture of Jesus in a government location, no matter how local, is perceived as a religious act. It seems that we’ve lost our ability to appreciate the wider realm of possibilities. And that is sad. Who was Jesus, really? Historians and theologians come to no consensus on the issue. One thing is for certain, he’s sure to set people against one another wherever he appears.
Posted in Bibliolatry, Current Events, Deities, Posts, Sects
Tagged historical Jesus, Jackson City, Jesus, multiculturalism, New Atheists, Ohio, Religious Right, World War Two
At first glance it may not appear to be much. A small chunk of rock, probably limestone. Hardly large enough to be used in a sling against a giant in a pinch. Still, it is special. What makes this rock special is the context from which it was removed. A friend has recently returned from Israel and he brought this rock for me. It is from the Mount of the Temptation, atop which sits a lonely monastery cared for by a single, elderly monk. The thought of someone thinking of me in such a (literally) God-forsaken wilderness is touching. My brief travels through the desert of Judea offered plenty to occupy my restless mind. I’m pretty sure we zoomed by the base of the Mount of Temptation in an air conditioned bus one day on our way to somewhere less desolate. Or more. The sharp-voiced little skeptic in my head immediately kicks in: if Jesus was alone when tempted, how could anybody possibly know where it happened? I can’t picture him leading a tour there later—“and this is where I almost turned stone to bread; don’t those pebbles look like challah to you?”
But then, it’s not about historical accuracy. This little stone in front of me is a symbol. Broken off of the karst geography of the rocky spine of the Holy Land, this shard is meant to remind me to avoid temptation. A nearly identical piece of stone from Israel sits among my teaching trinkets. One of my students went to Israel back in my days at Nashotah House and returned with a bit of limestone for me. She said, “you can keep it as long as you put it on top of my gravestone when I die.” This was a custom I’d observed long before I’d even heard of Nashotah House. Long before religion grew flinty and unyielding. Stones bear remembrance. Although Israel is not as arid as many people believe it to be, rock is a natural resource of uncommon abundance. We age and die, but the rock remains. The rock remembers.
My six weeks in Israel were spent among the rocks of an ancient settlement known as Tel Dor. Archaeology, I learned, is mostly just removing the dirt from the rocks in the ground—at least at the entry level. Those stones tell a story. They were once a city, a district administrative center. Now they lie in dusty profusion, and only the most ardent of Bible readers will recall ever seeing Dor’s name in the pages of Holy Writ. Built by Solomon, the Bible grandly claims. Now all is ruins. The grandeur of a king toppled with the passage of time. My mind is drawn back to a treeless stretch of a mountain devoid of even the hardiest plants. A person can grow mighty hungry there. Mighty hungry indeed. Temptation comes, unbidden. Life is an unbroken chain of temptation, for those willing to be honest in the desert. That little stone is, in truth, bread.
Posted in Archaeology, Bible, Memoirs, Posts, Travel
Tagged Archaeology, Israel, Jesus, Mount of the Temptation, Nashotah House, Solomon, Tel Dor
While I was off in Indiana, Jesus was coming down in New Jersey. Well, at least a graven image was. My wife saved the front page of Thursday’s New Jersey Star-Ledger that had a front-page, above the fold headline, “Workers give Jesus a much-needed lift.” The caption notes that in a gusty storm on Tuesday the 200-300 pound Jesus (this is America, after all) tumbled off his pedestal at Saint John’s School in Orange. A crane hoisting the fallen Lord dominates the first page. Clearly a bit of irony on a slow news day, the social commentary is thick indeed. Despite Magritte’s assertion, we still say the painting is a pipe. The representation is the object. This is the native logic behind the “idols” of old—to capture an image is to somehow to encompass some of the essence. This is precisely why the Hebrew Bible forbids images to be made.
I realize that “essence” is a disputed concept these days. Some scientists have declared that no such thing exists, along with souls, deities, and free will. Nevertheless, most mornings I wake up aware that I am me and not you, that my physical body is relatively near where I last remember it being, and that it faces the same hopes and limitations it did the day before and before and before. Perhaps this continuity is an illusion, but I can’t afford to treat it as such. It’s hard for an identity-less person to hold down a job. As usual, it is money that comes back to define us.
We recognize that it is disrespectful to mistreat representations of what we hold sacred. Does Jesus suffer any real harm for his image laid out on the ground? The nuance necessary to separate likeness from reality is something we obviously possess, but as we deal with the physical world the distinction frequently fades. Religion may have lost much of its explanatory value for the material world we inhabit, but images of a fallen savior demonstrate that we still operate otherwise. Much of our religious life concerns appearances. And for many people that step between appearances and reality is a very small step indeed.
Posted in Bible, Consciousness, Current Events, Posts, Science, Weather
Tagged idols, images, Jesus, Magritte, New Jersey, New Jersey Star-Ledger
Coptic Christians have been in the news recently. In a late push to be known as the radical orthodox, it seems, the Copts have arrested the headlines. Tensions in the Middle East appear to have shifted to this ancient group and the media finds itself fascinated by them. In an unrelated development, a Coptic papyrus fragment appears to mention Jesus’ wife, according to CNN’s Belief Blog. Naturally, people are curious (read “upset”) at this revelation, although it is not history, just tradition. For decades, perhaps centuries, scholars of Christianity have noted that Jewish guys Jesus’ age would have been, by all social expectations, married. Celibacy was not really an option in the first century of the common era, and yet, no one explicitly mentions Jesus’ wife. This causes a larger crisis for divinity, because once Jesus was recognized as divine what would you do with a wife? She would complicate things (or at least theology).
The female divine is certainly as ancient as the male divine, culturally speaking, if not older. Despite cartoons of Cro-Magnon man dragging Cro-Magnon woman by the hair, all indications are that early people revered the feminine mystique as life-givers. Naturally, this equates to a kind of divinity. Only when society grew to be dominated by politics, no matter how primitive, did the male usurp the role of life-giving image-of-god-bearer. The male part in procreation was upgraded to being the creator, and the female relegated to a mere receptacle. Male gods alone could create universes, and women were downgraded to incomplete men. Still, in the myths around Israel (and perhaps within Israel as well) gods were married. The divine principle included both genders, although in an unequal distribution of power.
Fast forward twenty centuries and we have movements that encourage young women to consider Jesus as a kind of chaste lover. That’s a little hard to do if he was married—issues of adultery, at least in fantasy land, cause a real complication. The fact of history is that we possess very little of Jesus’ biography. Depending on how we parcel out the Gospels, we know only about one year’s worth (or three very scant years) of his life. Many personal details are left out. The Bible is clear that he had brothers and sisters, and even some of their names are preserved. We know his parents and find out that he was a cousin of John the Baptist. The relationships likely continued from there into other connections, but they weren’t central to the story the Gospel-writers wanted to tell. Adding women always complicates a male religion. Only non-gendered religions can be truly universal.
So this newly translated Coptic fragment comes from centuries later when it would seem natural that any Jewish man of the time would have been married. What was his wife’s name? Here’s the beauty of the revelation: for that, we can still offer the consolation, “fill in the blank.”
Rounding up the usual suspects?
Posted in Bible, Current Events, Feminism, Goddesses, Posts
Tagged celibacy, Copts, Cro-Magnon, goddess, Jesus, Jesus' wife, Middle East
Hagiography has gone out of style. Since the Reformation we’ve come to see even our most promising lights as flawed and sullied, and no one retains the sheen of unadulterated goodness. It is the new realism. Yet somewhere in our psyches we still need our heroes—those who give us something to which we might feebly attain. A couple years back I visited Edison’s Orange labs in New Jersey—his last inventing paradise—and partook of the mythology that is Edison. Thoughts of that visit keep coming to me, so I read Randall Stross’s The Wizard of Menlo Park: How Thomas Alva Edison Invented the Modern World. Like a wonder-struck schoolboy, or Homer Simpson, I was ready to find stories of incredible creations Edison conceived. Instead Stross’s account is devoid of hagiography and presents a tarnished hero that is much more in keeping with the spirit of the twenty-first century.
Edison was known, even in the nineteenth century, for his atheistic leanings. He was one of the proponents of the human spirit of achievement, a perennial hard worker who believed we could solve our own problems. In many respects, although he didn’t foresee the practical aspects of his inventions, he was ahead of his time. As Stross points out, during his days as a telegraph operator Edison got into trouble for transcribing Jesus Christ as “J.C.,” following the standard practice of rendering time as “B.C.” (Before Christ). Others saw this as sacrilege, perhaps falling into that perpetual myth that Christ was Jesus of Nazareth’s surname. Abbreviation, no matter how sacerdotal the content, is eminently practical in telegraphy.
When entertaining Henry Stanley during his days of phonograph fame, according to Stross, Stanley asked whose voice Edison would most like to hear from history. (Keep in mind, at this time, before records, magnetic tape, and MP3s, a recorded human voice seemed to be a way of communicating with the dead.) When Edison answered “Napoleon,” Stanley expressed surprise suggesting he would’ve supposed the most important voice to be that of Jesus. Edison replied, “Well, you know, I like a hustler.” Even for Edison hagiography was dead. But he did see that the world had gone after the hustlers. Watching the political game unfold again, of which I’m already deathly sick, I hear echoes of Edison’s cynicism. Political leaders would have us believe they are in it for our best interests. Anyone who has studied history (which most politicians despise and discourage us from doing) knows that Edison was right. For all his flaws, Edison will remain a symbol of light in dark times.
Sundays’ op-eds often have sensitive fingers on the pulse of the American religious scene. A piece by Tom Deignan in Sunday’s New Jersey Star Ledger raised a very interesting point about civil religion. Civil religion is, loosely defined, the acting out of religion in a civil-political forum as a cheap form of nationalism. We do it because it works. Noting that a presidential candidate denying the divinity of Christ in the twenty-first century would be engaging in political suicide, Deignan rightly points out that many earlier “Protestant” presidents would—and did—do just that. He notes that Taft, a Unitarian, came outright and said it. No matter the protestations of the Neo-Cons, the founding fathers were Deists, not believers in Christ’s divinity. Thomas Jefferson went as far as to excise all the miracles from his version of the New Testament. The idea that religio-politicking is business as it’s always been done is a myth.
And what a persistent myth it is! Many Protestant denominations trace their ancestry back to founders who believed that they were closer to the apostolic faith than the next guy. They legitimately believed their faith was the original, intended by God, Christianity. Thus it was in the beginning, is now, and forever shall be. Only it’s not true. Religion was purposely written out of the Constitution of the United States with the Bill of Rights declaring its freedom the ideal. What presidents believed hardly played into the concept of their fitness for national leadership in the early days. Now little else seems to matter. Deignan rightly wonders why Mitt Romney is so tight-lipped about his Mormonism. Could it be he fears what critics might say about devising a national budget through rose-colored glasses? Surely his vast personal wealth belies that concern.
So what was the original Christianity? On this point the Bible is amazingly unobscured; early Christianity was Judaism. Jesus was called “Rabbi,” and his teachings weren’t too far distant from Hillel and others near his generation. Paul of Tarsus, who pointed the nascent religion towards its evolution into Catholicism, was also Jewish. Following his faith in resurrection, some early Christians moved into the direction of eventual ritualism. The fancy hats of the papacy, it is fair to say, were never in the minds of Jesus or Paul. Not even Peter. Modern religions, even the primitivist movements, cannot reclaim the Christianity of the first century. That religion does not fit into a world of Internet, cell phones, and automobiles, let alone presidential candidates with wealth befitting King Herod. Let’s just grow up and admit where we are.
Posted in Bible, Civil Religion, Current Events, Popular Culture, Posts, Sects
Tagged civil religion, Deism, Jesus, Judaism, Mitt Romney, Mormonism, New Jersey Star-Ledger, Paul, politicians, Thomas Jefferson, Tom Deignan, William Howard Taft