Tag Archives: Jesus

Baptizing Virgil

Dante Alighieri was curious as to Heaven and Hell. Like most mortals, he wasn’t sure of his way around and so he needed a guide. Descending to the nether regions, he enlisted the services of Virgil. Virgil is best know for his epic poem The Aeneid, the early Latin account of the Trojan War. I’ve often wondered why Dante chose this particular writer as the “good pagan” who might lead him through the inferno without becoming ensconced within it. Then I found out about Virgil’s Fourth Eclogue. In addition to The Aeneid, Virgil wrote The Eclogues, or idylls of rustic life. In the fourth of these he included what some early Christians considered to be a pagan prophecy of the birth of a special child, although Virgil was never a Christian and indeed overlapped with Jesus by a decade or two. He is the author of the Roman national epic, as Aeneas was believed to have escaped Troy and gone on to found Rome. Virgil tells the tale. What would he be doing, predicting Rome’s spiritual conqueror?

Virgil; photo credit, A. Hunter Wright, Wikicommons

Virgil; photo credit, A. Hunter Wright, Wikicommons

When Rome became Christian, under the knowing gaze of Constantine, the fourth Eclogue of Virgil was reinterpreted as a prophecy of Jesus’ birth. You see, the special child born ushers in a golden age, and what could be more golden than imperial Rome? Virgil’s foresight suggested him to Dante as a reliable guide through the infernal regions where, despite his suspect religion, he never falters. This whole episode once again highlights just how influential Christianity was to become even in the secular world. Prophecy can be read back into any significant passage, biblical or not, and new religions are founded all the time on such a basis. Such is the power of the written word. It is not just Mormons who baptize those who don’t believe.

Rationally we know that Virgil did not predict the coming of Jesus some three decades in advance. Yet, even such a brilliant scholar as Dante Alighieri was swept along by the tide of belief that had convinced the eternal city of its heavenly pedigree. All roads lead to Rome, and all prophecies point to Bethlehem. Beatrice was, however, a real woman, who, Dante believed, was tasked with revealing Heaven to him. He fell in love with her when he was but nine, and when he married it was to another woman, pre-arranged by his family. Beatrice was married to different man and yet she would succeed where Virgil had failed. Ever after it would be known as the Divine Comedy indeed.

A Girl Named Cthulhu

It was only a 25-word blurb in last week’s Time magazine. A Canadian couple decided to let the internet community name their daughter. As of the time of writing the third most popular suggestion was Cthulhu. WWLD? The internet has brought Lovecraft’s sleeping deity to life. Ironically this evil, belligerent, and fearsome god tends to have more fans than some of the more loving, cuddling varieties of deity around which western culture arose. Children are a parent’s ultimate investment (or should be) and the name we bestow will influence their view of life. I still recall the scandal of when I first showed my Mom a baseball card where the player was named Jesus (Spanish pronunciation, please!). I innocently asked if that was allowed since we’d been taught that although other biblical figures were fair game, the name of God was a retired number. There was only one Jesus, and this baseball card a monument to sinful arrogance.

Cthulhu

Of course, we lacked the biblical training to know that Jesus is only the Greek form of Joshua, a name of fair game to any young lad. Naming after a deity was otherwise verboten. Of course, that has all changed now. Names are up for grabs, and it is getting harder to find unique ones. H. P. Lovecraft, who died in relative obscurity, could find publication only in pulp fiction magazines—the lowbrow literature of his day. The divine fruit of his fertile imagination has now taken on the dimensions of true divinity. How many potential names are out there on the internet? Lovecraft alone gave us many gods. All the Dianas, Thors, Carmans and Dylans out there are in good company. Why not name a child after a god?

Names do effect a child’s view of life. Growing up in a biblically literate family, I often thought of the Stephen of the New Testament. The first Christian martyr, he died with a vision of heaven in his eyes, earning the meaning of his name, “crowned.” I aspired to live a selfless life, in as far as such a thing was possible in the twentieth century. It was my name—it was my destiny. There are no other “Steves” in my family, and when I was old enough to comprehend that many children bear family names, I asked my Mom whence mine had come. It turns out that I was named not after a family member or even a saint, but after a cartoon character. Touché, Cthulhu! Long may those of us with unorthodox namesakes stick together. The world is our myth.

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.