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.
Posted in Deities, Feminism, Holidays, Just for Fun, Popular Culture, Posts, Sects, Travel
Tagged Good Friday, Jehovah's Witnesses, Jesus, London, Newsweek, Times Square, Watchtower
One of the more endearing of human weaknesses is our fear of the dark. For those who live north of the equator, we have just experienced our longest night. It is no coincidence that the religious holidays that occur in winter feature light. In our helplessness against the encroaching darkness, we light our Christmas trees and Hanukkah candles, adding just a bit more light to the world. Among the oldest of all holidays is the day that marks the birth of light’s resurrection. One need not be a pagan to appreciate the solstice and the inherent hope it bears for the return of the sun.
In this season we often see signs and hear laments about the absence of Christ from Christmas. Jesus was not born in winter, according to our best reckoning. One of the carols that drives me mad with distraction is “In the Bleak Midwinter” with its maudlin description of “snow on snow on snow”—clearly written by someone with limited experience of winters in Israel. Christmas falls near the solstice because people have from earliest memory recognized the sacredness of this season. When Jesus was born nobody knew he was to become so famous as to have one of the most popular Facebook pages ever, and so nobody thought to write it down. Even the Gospels the disciples never give a rousing chorus of “Happy Birthday” while on the dusty highway. What we’re celebrating is that night will not reign forever.
Having evolved to favor our eyesight, but lacking the standard mammalian nocturnal nature, we feel vulnerable in the dark. Even if Jesus hadn’t been born we’d be celebrating at this time of year. It might have been the re-living of the mythic Golden Age of humanity under Saturn that the Romans called Saturnalia, or it might have been the rejoicing over the resurrection of the beloved god Balder among the Norse. We might have had to wait until the days were noticeably longer to fete the goddess Brigid with the Celts at Imbolc, but we would have marked the occasion. Instead of cursing the pagan darkness, as the saying goes, we would light our feeble candles as a sign of hope. The reason for the season is the fact that the longest night is over and once more our days will slowly return light to our lives.
Here comes the sun
Posted in Bible, Classical Mythology, Deities, Holidays, Posts, Religious Origins, Sects
Tagged Balder, Christmas tree, Hanukkah, Imbolc, In the Bleak Midwinter, Jesus, Pagan, Saturnalia, winter solstice
When the same religio-historic event is described in three consecutive books I’ve read on diverse topics, I start to consider what strange form of coincidence is operating here. Coincidences are some of the potent spices that give life flavor—the tragic death of Suzanne Hart on Wednesday when an elevator crushed her to death occurred the very day my bus was late and I took the route directly past her building to avoid the crowds on 42nd Street. What was the series of uncanny events that led me to where someone was about to die? It hardly seems within the divine character. So coincidences have been on my mind of late.
The last three books I read have all discussed the Taiping Rebellion that took place in the mid-nineteenth century. Despite having studied religion all of my life, I had never come across this religiously motivated violence until reading Daniele Bolelli’s 50 Things You’re Not Supposed to Know: Religion. Unrest in imperial China had existed before, but Hong Xiuquan, the leader of the rebellion, was motivated by religion. Xiuquan was a Christian (no doubt the fruit of missionary activity) who came to believe that he was Jesus’ younger brother. His motivation for the rebellion was based on his aberrant version of Christianity that quickly grew into a full-fledged movement calling itself the Heavenly Kingdom. Basing itself in Taiping, the movement adopted the early Christian practice of communal property and came to rule over about 30 million people. The numbers are what is truly stunning about this tragedy. When the conflict with the Qing Dynasty ended, about 20 million people were dead. The number is so high as to shut down comprehension. So many dead because of religion. It has a corporate feel to it.
Religion evolves. When it is spread into new cultures, syncretism takes over. Many religious believers, through faith, insist that their religion is the same as the founder propounded. Such simplistic understanding is not true. Culture, just like biology, lives and grows through evolution. The American Christian dressed in expensive clothes in a phenomenonally costly mega-church with a shining preacher bearing a million-dollar smile is about as far from a property-less, vagabond carpenter from Nazareth as you can get. Yet we still pretend. If that pastor says he is Jesus’ younger brother, chances are good that many will believe him. Stranger things have passed the lips of televangelists. Emotional involvement in religion easily leads the zealous to extreme action. History has demonstrated this time and again. The Taiping Rebellion of the Heavenly Kingdom proves the point, even if we’ve never heard of it. Maybe it is no coincidence after all.
Posted in Books, Current Events, Evolution, Posts, Religious Violence, Sects
Tagged China, Daniele Bolelli, Heavenly Kingdom, Hong Xiuquan, Jesus, Qing Dynasty, Suzanne Hart, syncretism, Taiping Rebellion
Stepping into the Port Authority Terminal in New York City may be the last place I expected to see Jesus. But there he was, at Hudson News, his beneficent face forming a repeating mosaic before the hurried and harried commuters rushing to get to work. U.S. New & World Report’s special issue features Jesus. Obviously. Racking my half-asleep brain, I couldn’t think of any reason for this sudden popular epiphany; it seems out of sync for Christmas and Easter, and no big news discoveries in the archaeological world had been recently announced. Perhaps the editors know the American Academy of Religion and Society of Biblical Literature annual meeting is coming up next week. Getting 10,000 scholars of religion together in one location is enough to make even the most hardened skeptic pray for a miracle. So, what are these “Secrets of Christianity” that call for a special edition?
The sidebar taunts: “New Insights on His Life and Death,” “The Mysterious Virgin Mary” and “Has His Tomb Been Found?” I am curious about what makes Mary mysterious; she is a minor character in the Gospels who rose to a mysterious prominence only with Catholic hagiography. Well, the sidebar does also state that the special edition has “An Excerpt From Pope Benedict’s New Book on Holy Week.” Spoiler alert! Please keep in mind that Holy Week is months away yet. Perhaps it is in response to the overly religious tussle that is going on with Republican presidential candidates. What was once a forbidden topic of discussion is now headline news, and the average person might feel the need to brush up on Christianity 101. Problem is, apart from the Gospels—and their brief is not always historical—we have very little in the way of evidence about Jesus. In the first century he was just another radical rabbi, not likely to have garnered much public notice until after his martyrdom. That means that the smallest nuggets become huge in a world where we simply don’t know.
The cycling and recycling of Jesus into the public consciousness is big business in America. With the frenetic faith claims of political candidates lacing the headlines, it is almost like a high school locker room with each contender claiming to have the bigger God. Cracking open the magazine on my lunch hour confirmed my suspicions—there’s nothing here that scholars haven’t known for years. Problem is, scholars don’t speak on a level that most people can hear. I don’t recall the last time I saw a professor taking a bus or hanging out in a bus terminal. That’s the thing about Jesus, you can always find him hanging out with the common folk. If religious specialists would learn to speak in plain language there wouldn’t be so many “Secrets of Christianity.”
Posted in Archaeology, Bible, Current Events, Higher Education, Popular Culture, Posts
Tagged American Academy of Religion, Jesus, Republican Party, Secrets of Christianity, Society of Biblical Literature, US News & World Report, Virgin Mary
Judith Mills Gray, 2009
The death of a friend always covers life with a hazy gauze of disbelief for some time. In my fitful career I’ve taught several hundred students, and of those several hundred a handful have become friends. When the painful debacle of Nashotah House took place and I was reduced to a weeping mound of incoherent impulses, those who were friends tried to console me. Some had fortunately moved on by that point. Judith Mills Gray was one of those who had become a friend although she had made it to safety before me. Readers of this blog will likely not recognize her name—she never earned lots of money, the measure we use assess a person’s importance these days—but she was an artist, a deeply spiritual woman, and one of the kindest people I have ever known. In a day when the seminary actively discriminated against women, she managed to hang onto a place among the boys and did so with good humor. After my short stint as Registrar, she came along to lift that burden from my shoulders. When she left the seminary, my tiny family sat in her tiny house and wished her the joy that Nashotah could never offer.
Just two years ago we went to visit her in her native West Virginia. She was proof to me at that point that recovery from institutional abuse is possible, but I could see there were still scars. Many of those who suffered through years at the seminary left very bitter—I count myself among them—but Judith rose above it all. She was not perfect—none of us are—but she was a person determined to leave this world a better place than she found it. That is a tall order when the church, the putative bastion of good, turns all its guns on you. As Judith and I shared what would become our final reminiscences together, I sensed that ultimately she had come out the winner.
We are all born into a life with far more questions than answers. Jesus seemed to have had the idea that it was good to console those in difficulty, heal wounds, and try to make your fellow sojourners happy. Judith followed that path without the benefit of having the answers. Along the way we shared many laughs and quite a few tears. We both had experienced the face that the church carefully hides from the wider public, the face that finds Jesus a little too idealistic and hate and revenge a simpler and more effective option. Judith never returned hate for hate. She continued trying to find a path where, although not ordained, she could still minister to others. For those few of us fortunate enough to know her, she was an example of how to make gold out of lead. In my case, I know that there will be lead in my life for quite some time now that she is gone. I also know that lead can, and sometimes does, turn to gold.
Who you gonna call?
“The only thing we have to fear is fear itself—nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.” These bold words from Franklin D. Roosevelt’s first inaugural address could just as readily be applied to religion. Frequent readers of this blog will have no doubt noticed the recurring references to horror films and the occasional scary novel. Aside from everyday fears, (such as yesterday’s when I learned that my summer course, my only source of income for next month, had been cancelled) there are more deeply seated phobias that lurk in our subconscious minds. A reasonable conclusion might suggest that this undercurrent of fear is what buoys up the horror movie industry—people really are afraid. Fear is, in the final analysis, the original basis for religion.
Along with the evolution of consciousness, humanity has also acquired the knowledge of uncertainties and troubles ahead. We project to the next day and realize tomorrow is never secure. In desperate hope we beg the higher power for protection. If we were in control of our own destinies, we would not need the gods. Over the course of civilization, there have been luminaries who’ve tried to wrestle religion from the realm of fear into a more pleasing sphere. Jesus, for example, tried to stand religion on the basis of love. Within a couple of decades, however, Paul came along and managed to twist it back into the domain of fear once again. Fear of Roman persecution, fear of Hell, fear of life itself.
Religion is an embodiment of our fears. Many today choose to place their trust in reason and technological development. No doubt these arenas of human endeavor have improved life for many people. Yet, even with our growing global awareness, fear creeps in and we use our technology for weapons to keep us safe. We don’t call it religion any more, but national security, or the defense industry. Or, God help us, the TSA. The end result is the same: we fear more than fear itself. We place our trust in something we can’t fully comprehend. No matter how rational (or unemployed) we become, religion will never go away.
Posted in Consciousness, Deities, Memoirs, Movies, Posts, Religious Origins, Science
Tagged Consciousness, fear, Franklin D. Roosevelt, horror movies, Jesus, origin of religion, Paul, phobias, unemployment
Time to get Lent
Each year as spring struggles to overcome winter’s terminal chill, colorful flowers begin to burst from the earth to announce the rebirth of hope. So it is that bright purple signs have begun to spring up all over town announcing the joy that is Lent. Wait a moment – Lent and joy in the same sentence? The radiant signs read, “Lent: a good time to come home.” That’s not the Lent I remember. Having spent the longest decade of my life at a seminary that was frequently touted as “all Lent, all the time,” I suffered my share of the season. While I think I comprehend the tactic behind this attendance boosting campaign, I wonder if it isn’t leading with the chin.
Back when flowers were the first colorful signs of spring, when I was young, churches did not advertise. Stolid bastions of the truth, each and every one, they awaited sinners to come to their senses and select the correct avenue to the truth. If you missed, well, Hell never turned anyone away. Nowadays, however, we need advertising to convince us. In a consumerist heaven, we are deluged with choices. When the faithful dither, it must be time to advertise.
The first to admit personal bias, my experience of Lent has usually been dreary and unrelenting. A naturally quiet and self-critical individual, I don’t need a whole denomination on my back to force me to think about the faults I already castigate. The thought of the season makes me shudder – people who spend all the rest of the year looking out for number one are to emulate Jesus’ reflective 40 days in the wilderness to be like their savior, only to snap back to their old self-serving ways on Easter. Could be a recipe for collective schizophrenia. Temporary Christianity. Do we really need more occasions to be glum? My favorite part of Lent was always Mardi Gras; at least then we were working on something new to contemplate during the next 40 long, chilly days.
No adequate explanation has ever been proffered for the human desire to be where more prominent individuals have been. In its religious guise this is generally called pilgrimage, and the faithful seek out locations where a besainted member of their faith tradition once trod, ate, slept, or died. Going to the place of the famous is a major motivation for the travel industry. We are driven to see what s/he saw, taste what s/he tasted, experience what s/he lived. Just to be there, and contemplate. No one person, however, is universally known by every individual world-wide, so who it is we follow varies widely. This sense hit me once again last night as my family undertook the rare treat of a live show at the Paper Mill Theater in Millburn. Although Hairspray is not the most profound of shows, it was exceptionally well done, and the images on the walls of the foyer reminded us of who had been here before.
The Paper Mill Playhouse, a place of transformation
The shotgun blast of emotions this experience created verges on the religious. There was a time when I too donned the greasepaint (hard to believe for those who’ve only known me with this two-decades worth of old-growth forest on my face), and I know it to be a transcendental experience. The clean-shaven face is a boundless canvas. My own experience was local and small-scale, and certainly not done for fame, but the transformation was palpable. I am sure that actors everywhere share this experience – the apotheosis of becoming someone else. This week in mythology class we discussed Dionysus, the god of such transformations (and theater). A god who travels, a god associated with place, it is easy to understand how Dionysus became so popular, with or without the wine.
An epiphany of Dionysus
Dionysus was the recipient of a mystery cult in antiquity, one that rivaled Christian inroads in the Roman Empire. You see, many people recognized the similarities of Dionysus and Jesus. Both were begotten in unusual ways by their father (the high god), and both were gods of epiphany. Both were gods who understood the human condition – having mortal mothers, who came to people where they were, and who transformed the ordinary into extraordinary. Both were associated with wine – Jesus’ first miracle at Cana showed his theological pedigree – and both had reputations for associating with the less desirable members of society. And yes, both offered resurrection, a means of overcoming the limitations of life itself. Perhaps that is why the rare pilgrimage to the theater is so transcendental. It is pilgrimage and apotheosis all in one. And that is more than most of us might ever hope to achieve, short of encountering Jesus, or Dionysus, himself along the way of our pilgrimages.
Posted in Classical Mythology, Deities, Memoirs, Popular Culture, Posts, Travel
Tagged Dionysus, Epiphany, Hairspray, Jesus, Paper Mill Playhouse, pilgrimage, theater