Why Religion? By Elaine Pagels

That was the question her parents asked when young Elaine announced she was going to enter Harvard Graduate School to study religion. A few years earlier her secular father was furious to learn that she had gone forward at a Billy Graham crusade and given her life to Christ.

Describing the crusade she attended with friends in California, she said the evangelist spoke of the national sin of racism and mentioned that the USA was the first and only nation in history to use a nuclear weapon. Although her personal religious perspective changed over the years, she never criticized Graham, and expressed gratitude for the world the experience and Evangelical Christianity opened to her.

She continued to attend a weekly Bible study with her evangelical friends throughout high school—until tragedy struck. Her close friend Paul was killed in a car accident, and her evangelical friends told her he was in hell because he was Jewish. A curious reminder of the atmosphere in which she grew up, Jerry Garcia was part of her circle of San Francisco friends and was riding in the car and injured in the accident. She believes his reaction to surviving the accident was reflected in the name he chose (from the Egyptian book of the Dead) for the new band he formed shortly after the tragic event.

Tragedy is the theme of the book. I don’t need to give a spoiler alert, because she mentions in the introduction the tragic deaths of her son and husband. The details are heart wrenching.

Reading those details was uncomfortable for me, but her main theme, her religious journey, was disquieting for me. She describes sexism at Harvard (she was first denied admission to the program because they didn’t believe a woman could persevere and complete her research), and sexual harassment by her adviser, who was not named in this book, but was in some of her earlier writings. Nevertheless, she did persevere.

Her research centered on the newly published Nag Hammadi texts, Coptic translations of secret or lost Gospels. She described her findings and those of her colleagues in the book The Gnostic Gospels. Her approach to the history of early Christianity is popularized by Dan Brown in the Da Vinci Code. She believes the Gnostic Gospels represent a faith free from dogma, a faith that emphasizes free inquiry and looking within for the truth.

Professor Krister Stendahl, professor and later dean at Harvard, was one of the good guys in her story. She described telling him at her admission interview she wanted to explore the essence of Christianity. He asked her, “What makes you think it has an essence?” The group of researchers she joined came to describe various diverse Christian movements in the days before a defined dogma suppressed diversity and dissent.

I have long believed that Christianity will always be in need of renewal and reform; but I have also believed that the resources for that renewal will always be in available in the traditional sources: primarily the New Testament Scriptures, with some guidance from the church fathers, the Apostles Creed, and support from the Old Testament prophets. The numerous recent failures of various Christian leaders and the followers makes me wonder if the traditional resources are enough.

Professor Pagels is a good story teller. I listened to the audiobook version, and I had several driveway moments waiting to finish an episode. The reader was pretty good, but not perfect. She didn’t always pronounce the words correctly and sometimes paused prematurely. When Pagels spoke of a beautiful “Reformation hymn,” the reader said “re-formation.” But audiobooks are great for someone who spends much time in a car.

Growing Up Conservative, 2

Here are the rest of my reflections on my Bible college education.

Yes, we were taught a conservative view of the Bible and the Christian faith. We were taught that the “social Gospel” was dangerous. We were taught our primary mission was evangelism, winning people to faith in Jesus so they could go to heaven, rather than building schools and hospitals. We were warned about liberal theologians who were basically atheists that used religious language as metaphors. But we were not taught hate. Overall, my conservative religious education was positive and wholesome, and made me a better person.

Brother Wilson had been the founding professor at Ozark Bible College. He celebrated his fortieth year while we were students there. There was also a new, younger professor, Knofel Staton there. He was known as a dynamic speaker. He spoke nearly every weekend in different churches or conferences throughout the area. Sonja and I both enrolled in his “Introduction to Bible Study Class” our freshman year. It was an amazing class. This was before I had enrolled in the official hermeneutics class, but it was a seminar in historical and contextual interpretation.

Professor Staton’s favorite theme was unity. The church was to be a community of unity. He loved to explain agape, the Greek word for God’s love. Agape is “seeing a need and moving to meet it.” The church is a community of unity, the body of Christ through which his love flows to a hurting world. Feeding the hungry, sheltering the homeless, helping single mothers, sponsoring alcoholics anonymous, fighting racism, all these works of love were as valid as evangelism. He led us through Romans 16 and pointed out all of the women who were active in ministry. He mentioned Deborah in the Old Testament and called the theory that God chose her only because there were no strong men available “poppycock!”

I did a lot of reading beyond course requirements. Whenever I found a good author I ready several books by the same name. One of my professors liked Elton Trueblood. I read his book on Philosophy of Religion in conjunction with a course on the subject. A statement in that book surprised me for its direct and simple logic: “You don’t have to believe anything that is irrational.” Specifically, he was talking about Christian beliefs about hell. The statement struck me. I had somehow believed we have to believe some things that don’t make sense, as a test of faith, or because God is smarter than we are. But here is a Christian thinker who says, No, you don’t have to believe things that don’t make sense.

Along with several of my friends, I read Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Cost of Discipleship, which emphasized genuine repentance and obedience to the words of Jesus Christ. We didn’t know much of the historical background. We thought obedience meant being faithful in prayer and church attendance, avoiding pornography and alcohol, the traditional sins for conservative Christians. We didn’t realize the book was written in 1937, three years after Hitler seized power, and that for Bonhoeffer, obedience meant resistance to the ideology of Arian Nationalism, white supremacy, the idolatrous worship of a strong leader, and the compromise of the churches in endorsing “German Christianity.” Later I would make a more detailed study of all of Bonhoeffer’s major writings, especially his Letters and Papers from Prison, written while he was paying the personal cost of his following Jesus.

You had to be there in the late 1960s and early 1970s to appreciate Francis Schaeffer. He had a ministry in the Swiss Alps called “L’Abri Fellowship.” Wandering hippies and students on a Wanderjahr and young people needing a few days of detox would crash for a day or a month and think deep thoughts and have deep conversations with Francis and his wife Edith. These vagabond seekers experienced genuine Christian love and heard answers to their deepest questions, while being challenged with new questions. Occasionally Francis would tape record a lecture and put it in an archive. He also collected recordings from other visiting lecturers, such as Os Guinness.

Francis Schaeffer had long hair and wore Lederhosen. His voice was high-pitched and always reminded me of Truman Capote. Friends would gather his recorded lectures and transcribe them into books. And the books were eloquent. Schaeffer critiqued modern literature, philosophy, and theology, along with art and politics, and presented faith in the living God as the alternative to modern despair; He spoke of “The God Who Is There,” as a reality not just a metaphor.

There has often been an element of anti-intellectualism in conservative religion. We valued the positive contributions of Schaeffer’s thought. But he also gave us “permission” (if we needed it–yes, we needed it) to attend to great art and literature and to think serious thoughts.

At the other extreme of intellectual stimulation was a satirical journal called the Wittenberg Door. Reading it helped keep my perspective in balance. The magazine regularly lampooned icons of the evangelical subculture. But it also included serious interviews. I was introduced to Martin Marty, Jim Wallis, Tony Campolo, and many other serious Christian thinkers and activists. A cartoon in the Wittenberg Door characterized what kind of magazine it was: a young man standing at a news stand was surreptitiously looking at its pages hidden under the cover of a Playboy magazine.

Growing up Conservative, part 1

Below is a brief excerpt from a chapter in the book I am writing. It is about my Bible College education:

Naturally, a Bible College is a conservative institution, but not in the way you might think. My professor of hermeneutics challenged us to think for ourselves, to understand the meaning of words in their historical context, in fact to take a historical and contextual approach to the text. It was from professor Seth Wilson (we called him “Brother Wilson) I learned how to read ancient texts.

He would occasionally diverge into politics. I remember him saying Franklin Roosevelt was the greatest traitor the country ever had. I wasn’t sure what he meant, because he didn’t elaborate. Once he mentioned the peace conferences at Yalta where the allies gave Eastern Europe to the Soviet Union. Otherwise, I assumed it was because he thought Social Security was a slippery slide toward socialism.

Years later I took a university history course on the history and rhetoric of Franklin Roosevelt’s presidency. We studied the history and his speeches. I learned that there wasn’t really much choice about which countries the Soviets occupied. They were already there; boots on the ground had settled it. Western Europe and America were exhausted from war and there was no stomach for a new war against communism. I also was exposed to the view that FDR had saved capitalism by mitigating its harshest failings. But it was brother Wilson’s comments that sparked my interest in learning more about President Roosevelt.

There are three features often associated with conservative religion I was never taught at Ozark Bible College. We were never taught racism. The idea that black skin is “the mark of Cain,” was debunked. We were taught that God loves all people equally.

We were never taught that the King James Version of the Bible is the original, or the only, or the best English translation of the Bible. In fact, in hermeneutics class, we had to read the original preface of the translators to the reader, in which the translators responded to criticism that they were presumptuous to revise the Bible. (If you look at the dedication page in the King James Version, it says, “other translations diligently compared and revised.”)

We were taught that we should learn Hebrew and Greek if we really wanted to know the Bible in the original language. Brother Wilson raised some eyebrows when he wrote an essay defending Today’s English Version, or Good News for Modern Man back in the 1960s. We were even taught textual criticism. I learned all about the different manuscripts and the variant readings in them my Freshman year, and was fascinated by it.

We were also spared indoctrination in the dispensational interpretation of the Bible. This is the belief that the Bible contains a blue print of the last days, that there are signs we should look for, and that we should expect the rapture of the church, when people would mysteriously disappear while driving cars and flying airplanes. We were taught that the book of Revelation was written to encourage Christians in the first century who were suffering persecution from the beast, the emperor.

Go Set a Watchman

I just finished listening to the Audiobook of Go Set A Watchman, read very effectively by Reese Witherspoon. The manuscript was written in the 1950s but never published until it was discovered in 2014. The story is set after To Kill A Mockingbird, when Jean Louise (Scout) is a grown woman of 26. Go Set A Watchman was written before the more famous book, the main theme of which is summarized in a brief section.

Mockingbird was a gentler and more effective way of dealing with racism. Had she published the Watchman manuscript in the 50s, it would probably have been banned and its author blacklisted.

Mockingbird is probably a more perfect artistic accomplishment. Go Set a Watchman, though, has its literary moments, with some colorful characters and amusing scenes.  The scenes of the motherless child reaching puberty and the anxiety it causes should be required reading for every teacher or youth worker who deals with middle school children.

The last few chapters resemble a platonic dialog more than a dramatic story and consist of a series of intense exchanges between Jean Louise and those closest to her.  Her angry speeches against racism are countered with genteel defenses of the way things are and why it is necessary to go along and get along. It is this social commentary that we need now.

You remember back in November when everyone warned us to avoid politics and religion at the family gathering for Thanksgiving? Jean Louise’s speeches are the models for what we should have said.

Flash Fiction Contest

From the park-and-ride lot, it is nine miles down hill, so I don’t have to arrive sweating and hot. At the end of the day the uphill workout burns off stress. The road from the interstate highway into town is four lane with a whole extra lane for a shoulder, separated by a rumble strip. What could be a safer place to ride a bicycle?

Except for the driver texting on a sunny afternoon who didn’t hear or feel the vibrations. On my evening return journey I stop and pause before the white ghost cycle and the white flowers.

No Job for an Academic

There are no jobs for people who want to teach critical thinking skills to college students. The job of professor does not exist anymore, at least in areas like communication or humanities. Or to be accurate there may be a few such jobs, but the odds of a qualified person getting one are like winning the lottery. Eighty percent of college courses are taught by non-professors. Usually that means adjuncts with no benefits, no security, and minimum wage salaries.

Some find creative ways to make ends meet.

https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2017/sep/28/adjunct-professors-homeless-sex-work-academia-poverty

I think there is a better way. We should all become entrepreneurs. At least, that’s what Muhammad Yunus believes.

https://hooksbookevents.com/event/world-three-zeros-new-economics-zero-poverty-zero-unemployment-zero-net-carbon-emissions/

To Professor Roxanne, who is willing to put her body on the line so she can teach critical thinking skills to young minds, I would say, you don’t have to put on the red light. Find a way to sell your critical thinking skills. Market your mind.

Here is a secret. Not too many college students are interested in learning those habits anyway. But there is a niche market. There are people who would really like to know how not to be duped, how to find solutions and train others. They just might not be able to afford tuition at the nearby university. Maybe they can’t pay $40,000.00, but they could pay $500.00. Get a dozen of them together and form a seminar.

Find a way to market critical thinking. Print some T-shirts and have coffee mugs made.  Call it therapy, anti-duping therapy.  Demagogue resistance training.  You could also market seminars to businesses.  The skills you teach will make their employees more productive, creative, and engaged with the job.

I attended a Police impersonators concert Friday, and I have the words stuck in my mind:

Put on the Red Light,

Put on the Red Light,

Put on the Red Light . . .

 

Why I Am a Small ‘c’ catholic

The word catholic comes from the Greek phrase kath’ holen ten oekoumenen, “throughout the whole inhabited world.” To be a catholic Christian means you follow the faith that is accepted and practiced throughout the whole world. The word ecumenical comes from the same phrase. To be catholic and to be ecumenical mean the same thing. It means you share the faith Christians down through the ages and throughout the whole world have followed.

That faith centers in what God has done for the world through Jesus Christ. God sent his son into the world to show us the way of peace and love, to bear our sins on the cross so we can be forgiven and reconciled to God and to one another, to rise again conquering death on our behalf so we can be assured of eternal life, and to give us the Holy Spirit to empower us to live lives of love and peace, anticipating the final transformation of this world into the kingdom of God.

This faith is summarized in a confession known as the Apostle’s Creed. It contains the words, in addition, “I believe in the one, holy, catholic church.”

All followers of Christ belong to that church. It is not perfectly one or holy or universal as we see it now. But because it is claimed by Christ and because he works through those people, it is one, holy, and catholic.

I say small ‘c’ without meaning any disrespect to large ‘C’ Catholics or Orthodox. In fact, I have a growing respect for the Roman Catholic Church and the various Orthodox churches who are also Catholic. I have a lot of respect for the popes I have known in my lifetime, especially St. Francis. Some of his recent predecessors did not do enough to deal with a horrible problem in the church, and I don’t excuse that. But that is a problem the authorities in Rome and in America and other countries will have to deal with.

I keep a copy of the Catechism of the Catholic Church on my desk and receive a lot of benefit from it. The catechism gives better answers than some of my conservative Protestant and Evangelical brothers and sisters (I have to say and sisters, although women theologians are fairly new in those circles) to questions about science, sexuality, economic justice, ecology, world religions, human rights, and the modern historical study of the Bible.

Once I had a student who freaked out when he heard the term “free church catholic” at a conference. I could use that term to describe myself. I remain free to follow my own conscience and hold my own convictions. In other words, I remain free to disagree with the catechism or the teachings of the church. For example, when I say Rome gives better answers on sexuality, I still disagree with its teaching that celibacy is the only option for those who accept a religious vocation, for those who have been divorced and remarried, and for others. But the place for that conversation would be at the Boji Stone (our local coffee shop), in a friendly, respectful atmosphere.

The Reformed theologian Jürgen Moltmann has spent his life engaging in dialogue with Catholics, Protestants, Marxists, atheists–anyone who will sit down and talk to him. He says you don’t have to give up beliefs that are important to you to have a conversation. In fact, he says, if you suppress your differences, you deprive the other person of a genuine conversation partner. Today I am emphasizing what I have in common with all followers of Christ, and why I am a catholic Christian.

And so, I am free to participate in the long-established participation of Ash Wednesday and Lent. To some extent, participating in a season of fasting, self-denial, and reflection also reflects a bit of solidarity with Jews, who observe Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, and other fasts; and Muslims who fast during Ramadan and other times.

The deprivations we catholics undergo during Lent are pretty mild compared to the fasts the other children of Abraham endure. During Lent we can choose what to give up. I suggest either giving up something you don’t need anyway, or something you enjoy but that is not really essential. I visited with a lady yesterday who told of a friend who gave up smoking every year during Lent. She said he was aware of it every moment, constantly reaching for his empty shirt pocket. But that constantly reminded him of Jesus and what he suffered for us. (I wondered why he didn’t just stay quit–but that is another story).

There is one other kind of fasting, mentioned by the prophet Isaiah. It’s not really giving up something ourselves, but it is thinking of others in need.

Is not this the fast that I choose:

to loose the bonds of injustice,

to undo the thongs of the yoke,

to let the oppressed go free,

and to break every yoke?

Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,

and bring the homeless poor into your house,

when you see the naked, to cover them,

and not to hide yourself from your own kin?