As the Passover-Easter complex of holidays approaches, our stern, scientific face turns toward the more human sensibilities of religion and its impact on our lives. PBS recently aired the Nova special The Bible’s Buried Secrets (originally aired in 2008) and when a colleague began asking me about it I figured I’d better watch it. As an erstwhile biblical scholar there wasn’t much here that was new to me, but one aspect of the program bothered me. Well, to be honest several things bothered me, but I’ll focus on one. When referring to the gods of the Canaanites, among whom the program readily admitted the Israelites should be counted, they were invariably referred to as “idols.” The problem with this terminology goes back to an issue I frequently addressed with my students—the term “idol” is a way of demeaning the gods of a different religion. Implicit in the word is the assumption of the monotheistic worldview and its attendant problems.
The Bible’s Buried Secrets seemed to adopt an overly optimistic view of the monotheistic religions sharing the same god while everyone else worshipped idols. The view is as fraught as it is simplistic. Historically Judaism, Christianity, and Islam are certainly connected. Each recognizes in the others a glimmer of its own theology and outlook, but the concept of deity has shifted somewhat at each development. Judaism and Islam are rather aniconic, especially compared to many varieties of Christianity where images are allowed, or even encouraged. It is difficult to grab the attention of the magazine-reading public with an image of invisibility on the cover. It should come as no surprise that some Jews and Muslims believe Christian images to be, well, idols.
An idol moment?
The word “idol” is by nature pejorative. Ancient people were sophisticated polytheists. That statue that represented a deity was not thought to be that deity in any absolute sense. Rituals assured the ancients that they were instilling some aspect of divinity into the statues they used, making them sacred in the same way a Christian consecrates a church building. What’s more, it is natural for people to seek a visual focus for its devotion. It is difficult to conceptualize the Almighty as a person without giving it (often him) a body. Islam, especially, has been adamant that this can’t be done, and looking back at Christian practice it is sure to see idols abounding. As the holy days begin for our vernal celebrations, we should perhaps use the opportunity to rethink such religious vocabulary since every orthodoxy is someone else’s paganism.
Posted in Archaeology, Bible, Deities, Holidays, Popular Culture, Posts, Religious Origins, Sects
Tagged Christianity, Easter, idolatry, Islam, Judaism, Passover, PBS, religious tolerance, The Bible's Buried Secrets
Thinking back to our days in Edinburgh, I had a song come to mind. I could remember only a word or two, but the tune and the cadence were still there. Not a singer, nor even a hummer, the best I could do was ask my wife if she remembered the song based on the two words I could recall. Amazingly, she did. When I went to download it on iTunes, I learned that it isn’t available in the US. Probably copyright laws—these can be quite bizarre. Music has a way of staying with you and one of the songs unforgettable to those of us growing up in the ‘60s is Don McLean’s “American Pie.” In a recent Bloomberg View piece, Stephen L. Carter, a professor at Yale, laments the fact that McLean’s original notes for the song are going up for bids and, after five decades of guessing, we may finally learn what the cryptic lyrics mean. Or will we?
A colleague of mine used to say, “words don’t have meanings, they have usages.” In the literary technique known as reader-response criticism, it is the reader who has the final say in what a passage “means.” An author may intend one thing, but who is the author to control the meme once it’s out? (You can see why some biblical students get upset by such things since the same thing applies, even if the author is God.) While I’m not po-mo enough to accept this completely, it has introduced an edge of caution to my reading. After all, if an author is dead (ahem) we can’t question him or her to find out what they meant. Even if they remember. “American Pie” is notable for its lyrics with religious imagery which, fairly clearly, are not really religious. Or are they?
Carter laments the coming unveiling. The mystery will be gone. Don McLean, the ultimate one-hit wonder, will walk away with the goods yet again. I have no doubt that there will be analyses and hermeneutical disquisitions. The learned will claim that we finally have the answers. I’m not so sure. What if the “Father, Son, and Holy Ghost” turn out to be Buddy Holly, Big Bopper, and Richie Valens? What does that mean? Perhaps Don McLean, like any old prophet, was merely a vehicle for a message received from elsewhere. The questions go back in an endless regression, and no answer will ever be final. We all know the song is about “the day the music died.” As the old camp song says, “music alone shall live, never to die.” And as I sit here trying to remember how a song I last heard two decades ago goes, I’m pretty sure that the camp song is right, whatever it means.
Posted in Art, Britannia, Current Events, Memoirs, Popular Culture, Posts, Rock-n-Roll
Tagged American Pie, Big Bopper, Bloomberg View, Buddy Holly, Don McLean, Edinburgh, iTunes, reader-response criticism, Richie Valens, Stephen L. Carter
The story of Noah has long fascinated me. The world of early Genesis is so mysterious and compelling—a mythical time when all the action seemed to be taking place in just one bit of the world, and events were always momentous. Noah, the new Adam ten generations on, stood out as the prototypical good guy. The sort of fellow you’d like living next door. An everyday hero. The movie Noah, however, introduced a dark and brooding ark captain whose unyielding devotion to his own concept of righteousness led to a tormented journey over the flood. I wonder if Darren Aronofsky read Timothy Findley’s Not Wanted on the Voyage. Recommended to me by one of my students, this novel was difficult for me to categorize. At first I thought it might be a funny story—despite the tragic overtones, there is much in the flood story that suggests humor—but no, it was more serious than that. Noah was cast in a primeval, post-Christian world where elements of the twentieth century were freely available, while others were not. And more troubling, Noah was not at all a nice guy. Indeed, he is one of the best written antagonists I’ve encountered. You shudder when he enters the room.
Apart from Noah, however, the novel explores the premise that Yaweh [sic] sent the flood as a final, dying act. Old, feeble, yet the creator of everything, the deity is ready to give it all up as the absentee landlord who has no idea what’s happening on earth. The reader feels little sympathy for the divine. Like humanity, he set something in motion he has no hope of controlling, yet which he can destroy. As he is about to die, unbeknownst to all humans, he sends the flood. Noah, six-hundred years old and senile, oversees his ark with an iron hand. His religion has made him cruel, and I was frequently left wondering whether those who survived were more fortunate than those who did not. As a fantasy the story works, with well drawn characters and a devious plot. The problem comes in trying to reconcile it with a Bible story all too well known. In the end we’re left wondering if the flood does really ever end, and, if so, does anything turn out okay.
Known for his dark, conflicted characters, Findley adds a macabre dash of the improbable to an already unbelievable story. Mrs. Noyes, aka Mrs. Noah, is perhaps the most sympathetic character in the novel. Her son Ham, cursed in the biblical version, is clearly the best son, but one his father dislikes by reason of his love for science. Part morality play, part farce, Not Wanted on the Voyage can be a disturbing novel, rather like the movie Noah. That’s not to suggest there’s no message here. I see it as a cautionary tale of a misplaced faith taken too far. Instead of pleading to save humanity, Noah seems only to glad to let all but his own be wiped out. His sons disappoint him, and the one daughter-in-law he appreciates disappoints him in the end. Perhaps this is what destructions are all about. Does any flood really have a happy ending?
Posted in Bible, Books, Genesis, Literature, Movies, Popular Culture, Posts, Religious Violence
Tagged Darren Aronofsky, flood myth, Genesis, Noah, Not Wanted on the Voyage, Timothy Findley
For many years I actively attended to the calendar of saints while at Nashotah House. Although we celebrated Mardi Gras, we never seemed to celebrate St. Patrick, although he does hold a place on March 17. I suppose most people were too busy wearing black to attend to the green. I always, however, donned some verdant vestment for the day, and we usually had leprechaun gifts left behind for my daughter. After leaving Nashotah, I discovered that many universities scheduled spring break around St. Patrick’s Day. This wasn’t because of any love of the Irish or of liturgy, but because campus damage was so bad after the heavy drinking of that day, that many schools decided to let that be somebody else’s problem. St. Patrick isn’t particularly associated with alcohol, but even a quick walk by the bars of New York City demonstrates that the saint has found a home among the inebriated.
Little is known of the historical Patrick. He was associated with Lough Derg, an island of which was said to contain Purgatory. The lake also boasted a sea serpent, which may give some background to the legend associating Patrick with the banishing of snakes from Ireland. The shamrock story is likely apocryphal, but there’s no denying the brilliant green of the Emerald Isle, so the tradition developed of wearing his favorite color to commemorate the day. The traditions of Patrick grew by accretion. The Irish belief in wee folk gave legs to the leprechaun connection and, I’m told, heroic drinking might lead to the seeing of the same. One reason his day might have been downplayed liturgically is that it has become an unlikely cultural holiday. Those of us with some Irish ancestry run into some pretty high numbers.
The myth of St. Patrick is more powerful than his history. This may be a lesson for us even today. The stories we tell of our cultural heroes need not be grounded in fact in order to be meaningful. Over time the religious of many faiths have grown more and more literal to demonstrate their devotion. This is a risky proposition. We know little of the life of Patrick, or even of Jesus and other various religious founders’ lives. Their followers have been free to fill in the blanks for many centuries, building meaningful legends. I have no idea if Patrick of Ireland liked green. He may have found snakes charming. Upon an intemperate evening he may have seen leprechauns dancing about his parlor. It is less the tale that is important than it is what one might choose to learn from it.
Posted in Civil Religion, Holidays, Popular Culture, Posts, Religious Origins
Tagged Ireland, leprechaun, Lough Derg, Mardi Gras, mythology, Nashotah House, St. Patrick's