Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Pew Survey: Religious Illiteracy or Willful Ignorance?

A new survey recently administered by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life proves what all of us already knew: Americans know frightfully little about religion. As the Times reports, the survey tests respondents' knowledge of a variety of religion-related topics, from the Bible to Christianity to world religions to the relationship between church and state in America. The average score is a dismal 50%.

I didn't take the poll, but the questions I've seen seem pretty easy. Of course, I have a Ph.D. in Religious Studies, so I'm contractually obligated to think the survey is beneath me. But you can see for yourself: here's a link to some sample questions.

Progressive news outlets like MSNBC and the Huffington Post have been trumpeting the fact that atheists and agnostics score best on the quiz. (Though even these groups shouldn't be too proud: they average only slightly better than 60%.)

The Times quotes Dave Silverman, president of the advocacy group American Atheists, on non-believers' above-average performance: "'I have heard many times that atheists know more about religion than religious people', Mr. Silverman said. 'Atheism is an effect of that knowledge, not a lack of knowledge. I gave a Bible to my daughter. That’s how you make atheists'.” Translation? Believers are dumb. They don't even read their own texts. If they did, they'd be atheists too.

But this explanation--repeatedly raised by Keith Olbermann and Lawrence O'Donnell last evening--is facile and, frankly, uninformed. I would wager that most Christian believers know their own scriptures very well; most of my religious friends do.

But I wonder if there isn't a more nefarious reason for believers' relative ignorance. Perhaps they score poorly on a survey testing broad-based religious knowledge because some of them want to remain in the dark.

As I mentioned earlier this month, the would-be Qur'an-burner Terry Jones claims to have never read Islam's holy book. And one of the scariest banners floating around the protests against the Park51 community center in Lower Manhattan reads, "I learned everything I need to know about Islam on 9/11." Maybe some believers fare poorly on the Pew test not because they are stupid, but because they choose to remain ignorant of other traditions.

This theory holds water for me, because despite atheists' claims to superiority, they are not substantially smarter than their religious neighbors. But non-believers may have an edge because they allow themselves to be exposed to other faiths.

Frankly, though, I hope I'm wrong. Click here for more

Friday, September 24, 2010

Exodus 14: The Red Sea Parted, But Who Cares?

Early in the week a group of scientists in Boulder released a report arguing that Moses's parting of the Red Sea--described in Exodus 14--could have actually happened. The Christian Science Monitor explains:

"A team at the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) in Boulder, Colo., has identified what it argues is a plausible physical explanation for a parting of the waters. At the right spot – a sharp bend where a shallow river meets a coastal lagoon – and with the right contours of a waterway's bottom, wind moving across the bend could in effect push water both upstream and downstream, exposing the bottom. When the sustained winds finally die down, water returns from both directions to cover the muddy land bridge. The phenomenon is known as wind setdown."

Wind setdown, eh? I can respond to this fascinating advance in Biblical atmospherics in only one way: utter disinterest. Who cares?

The problem with this and other forms of religious pseudoscience--no matter how valid the research that backs them--is that they entirely miss the point of that Tanakh. The Exodus isn't one man's weather log; it's an account of one people's encounter with the transcendent divine. With God! It doesn't primarily engage the rational, the natural, or the analytical--it wrestles with the supernatural.

So when science steps in to join the fray, lab techs can only sound ridiculous as they turn a lasting symbol of slavery and divine liberation into a weather anomaly. God's miraculous freeing of the people Israel is reduced to an after-effect of el nino. And you all remember what el nino means in English, right? The nino.

So why do scientists do it? Or said differently, whom does this new theory--wind setdown--serve?

Certainly not the devout. Christians and Jews who take Exodus as "true" believe that God--not a unique wind pattern--parted the Red Sea. To suggest that such a parting could have happened naturally is to rob chapter 14 of its spiritual pith.

Perhaps atheists and skeptics get off on wind setdown; now, they can argue that God didn't "really" part a sea for Moses 3000 years ago. However, as I've mentioned before, if one scientific explanation of one Biblical miracle is your best argument against faith, you've never thought seriously about the complexities of belief.

But this theory is extremely unhelpful to me, and readers like me, many of whom are progressive believers. Setting theology aside for a moment, it's worth saying that we do wrong to treat ancient texts--not only the Bible--primarily as pieces of historical or scientific literature.

Most of the time, we know to avoid such folly: no one has looked into whether Agamemnon's sacrifice of Iphigenia actually caused the winds to pick up and send his fleet to Troy. And no one will ever try to prove that Xerxes actually commanded his troops to lash the Hellespont. These are old stories about insights more timeless than "wind setdown."

But the Bible makes people a little crazy--even upstanding scientists. Perhaps because literalists have ruled the day for so long, too many of us attend to the Bible's truths--little "t"--while losing track of its Truths--big "T."

So let me repeat one of the basic theses of this blog: the Bible uses figurative language to describe the experience of the numinous. To take that language as "real" and then to prove or disprove its historical or scientific veracity is to fight literalists on their own shaky ground. To do so is to reduce world-breaking scripture to an Excel spreadsheet of air velocities and water levels.

If intelligent discussion about religion and religious texts is ever to advance, we need to begin treating scripture as polysemantic literature capable of creating many meanings, the most important of which are never "scientific." Click here for more

Monday, September 20, 2010

A Christian Google, or Raising Your Turtle-Woman Hybrid

The Atlantic Monthly's Andrew Sullivan blogged yesterday about the minor but real proliferation of, shall we say, "orthodox" competitors to Google: search engines that deliver results filtered according to their compatibility with various faith systems.

Hence, there is imhalal.com for Muslims, jewogle.com for Jews, and seekfind.org for Christians.

Not surprisingly, all three are works in progress. Jewogle seems devoted only to providing information on famous Jews. An enigmatic line on its homepage simply reads, "Did you know that ________ is Jewish?" However, that space remains blank no matter how you click on it--I tried all sorts of creative tactics. And I can't quite figure out how the site will help me if I don't already know any famous Jews. Am I supposed to fill in the blank with my own wishful thinking? "Did you know that Pat Robertson is Jewish?" Or am I supposed to be provocative? "Did you know that Jesus is Jewish?"

I'mhalal, by contrast, is properly devoted to providing "Islamic" searches, but it doesn't significantly alter the results. An I'mhalal search for "jihad" turned out sources similar to those produced by Google. (Notably missing from imhalal.com's list is a link to jihadwatch.com, an increasingly popular--and alarmist--web site devoted to "bringing public attention to the role that jihad theology and ideology play in the modern world.") Links on the side of the results page send you to a Qur'an search or to Al Jazeera's web site.

But if you're looking for a kooky at-work diversion, seekfind definitely takes the cake. Seekfind promises "to provide God-honoring, biblically based, and theologically sound Christian search engine results." However, it significantly filters results, and it produces site lists with an obviously ideological bent. NPR's Habiba Nosheen notes that a search for "gay marriage" sends you to sites devoted to abolishing it. Further, if you search "Democratic Party, you will be sent to sites on Marxism. (Really, seekfind.org? That's a Christian belief?)

It's worth noting that a majority of seekfind's material seems to come from two sites: Probe Ministries, a conservative Christian news outlet, and christiananswers.net. This narrowness notwithstanding, I still wanted to see what else seekfind could turn up, besides slurs against progressives and homosexuals.

So I looked up "Marxism." Seekfind's first result was an essay called "Marxism and Science" that supposedly demonstrates Darwin's reliance on Marxist philosophy in developing his evolutionary theories. I knew that Darwin was a damn commie!

Then I searched "Bill Clinton," only to find a film review for the Tarentino film Kill Bill 2. Sneaky.

Then, to be edgy, I searched "bestiality." The fourth result was a piece called "Animal/Human Hybrids" that takes very seriously the possibility of mad goat-men roving the land. The author writes, "The formation of an entity that is both animal and human raises questions of personhood and challenges our definition of humanness. These beings will inevitably be met with challenges that go beyond identification with a minority group." To say the least!

If my sister produces a turtle-daughter after experiencing the love that really dare not speak its name, the least of my hybrid niece's problems will be minority group identification ... we'd have to be so careful that she didn't accidentally flip onto her back!

Seekfind's not-so-cleverly-hidden message dovetails nicely with an old saw of gay-bashers everywhere--the slippery slope argument. If we allow men to marry men, what's next? Men marrying snakes? Or dogs? And if we allow men to marry dogs, and the dogs have kids, what will we do with the hybrids?

These are weighty matters, but seekfind is here to help you out. Click here for more

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Eat the Qur'an, Too

In a post earlier this month, I outed myself as a supporter of all types of scriptural literacy--not just Biblical literacy. Basically, I'm excited if you're going to read the Bible more, but I'm also excited if you're going to read the Torah, or the Bhagavad Gita, or the Tao te Ching, or the Analects of Confucius, or hell, Dianetics!

Okay, maybe not Dianetics ... I guess my own willful ignorance begins with Scientology. Sorry, John Travolta.

But in this day and age, it is perhaps most crucial that we know the Qur'an better. And Islam, too. There is so much hatred, so much vitriol, so much mean-spirited bluster surrounding the ongoing discussion of that religion's place in America that we can't afford to be ignorant any longer. We need to know more, and we need to know better ...

Especially those of us who consider ourselves tolerant of Islam, who support Feisal Abdul Rauf and his vision of inter-religious dialogue, who condemn the Qur'an burners of the world, and who hope to rebuild an America devoted to the seminal--and Constitutional--religious freedoms guaranteed by our founding documents.

We need to learn more, start dialogue, and engage.

If you want to do so, you might start by reading two brief pieces that have inspired me in recent days. The first is an op-ed in USA Today written by a dear friend, Ismat Sarah Mangla. In it, Mangla argues:

"We need more dialogue, more reading of the Quran, both inside the Muslim community and out. After all, more than a billion Muslims in the world and 2.5 million in the United States are living quietly unsensational lives. These stories — of the silent majority of peaceful Muslims — are not headline-worthy. But they are nonetheless real."

She also points to passages in Muslim scripture that affirm those values that Americans hold most dear: truthfulness, justice, and freedom of worship.

The second is Valerie Kaur's "Shadow Generation," which appeared recently on the Huffington Post. Kaur issues a call to action to those youth who consider themselves tolerant and understanding, but who still seem to dwell in the shadows, ceding the stage to pundits and conservative blowhards. She writes:

"It is time for young people everywhere to emerge from the shadows. We know how to form common ground with people different from us, whether Muslims or Evangelicals, conservatives or progressives. We can draw upon these experiences to help overcome the fear driving hateful expression on both sides of the debate. We can invite opponents of Park51 to dialogue with Muslim Americans, so as not to conflate Islam with the acts of those who have committed violence in its name. And we can ask Muslim allies not to denigrate opponents of Park51 as ignorant or racist, and instead engage directly with the anxiety and misinformation driving Islamophobia. But only if we commit to action."

Kaur is a driving force behind the Common Ground Campaign, a "coalition of young people standing against hate speech and violence against Muslim Americans in the wake of the 'Ground Zero Mosque' controversy"--this from the campaign web site. How can you not sign her charter?

So read Mangla. Then read Kaur. Then crack open the Qur'an. Stop tolerating, and start getting involved. I'll do the same, even while I keep Bible-thumping here. Click here for more

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Matthew 5: Christine O'Donnell, the Bible, and Masturbation

Another Wednesday morning, another surprising primary upset for the Tea Party. Last night, insurgent candidate--and Sarah Palin endorsee--Christine O'Donnell pulled out a six-point win over establishment favorite Michael Castle in the race for an open Senate seat in Delaware. (That's her on the left, in a Washington Post photo.)

But The New York Times reports that many Republicans are glum at the news, because they believe O'Donnell's views are too extreme to appeal to the general electorate. Maybe they're right: O'Donnell's on the record as opposing masturbation, of all things!

CNN cites an old MTV interview in which O'Donnell comes out against sexual solitaire on Biblical grounds: "The Bible says that lust in your heart is committing adultery. [And] you can't masturbate without lust." And an interview appearing in today's Guardian suggests that she hasn't backed away from her position.

The candidate's engaging in some exegetical acrobatics here, but at least she's quoting a real text--Matthew 5:28, in which Jesus says, "everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart."

But context matters, and Jesus is not forbidding masturbation in this passage; he's warning people away from the thorny path to infidelity. Here's the full quote: "You have heard that it was said, 'You shall not commit adultery'. But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart." Jesus's point, I think, is that fantasies matter: if you're lusting after your neighbor's husband or wife, you're already on a slippery slope toward trying the trick.

So technically, I suppose O'Donnell could argue that Jesus is discouraging sexual fantasies here. But masturbation? Not explicitly, so far as I can tell ...

However, if O'Donnell really wants to campaign on the Bible's distaste for autoeroticism, she'd be better off going to the old classic: Genesis 38. In this chapter, God smites a man named Onan because he "spilled his semen on the ground" (38:9)--hence "onanism," a mostly arcane synonym for masturbation. (Most scholars now argue that Onan is killed because he refuses to impregnate his wife--not because he likes pleasuring himself. But I'll leave that quibble for a later date.)

But for now, I'm going to go ahead and advise O'Donnell to keep this plank--no pun intended--out of her platform. It's a non-starter on Biblical and political grounds. Polls suggest that 90% of men and 65% of women masturbate regularly. I wouldn't want to work against those types of majorities. Click here for more

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Ecclesiastes 12: Of Making Many Blogs, There Is No End ...

A miniature milestone has crept up on me as I've been working my way through this meandering Bible blog. Today is my hundredth post. Are you proud of me?

So I thought I'd celebrate by diving into one of my favorite Bible books, Ecclesiastes. I love the author's canny wit, his stark ironies, and his painfully honest sense of the real. The Ecclesiastes author pulls no punches.

But I find that my selection is ill-timed. Because I think that the Ecclesiastes author, if he came to my 100th-post party, would deliver a depressing message: Please stop writing your blog. Ouch.

Early rabbis believed that King Solomon wrote Ecclesiastes, along with the Song of Songs and Proverbs. They argued--sensibly if not correctly--that he composed the Song, an erotic love ballad, in his lusty youth; Proverbs, an collection of wisdom sayings, in his mature adulthood; and Ecclesiastes, a darker paean to human grasping, in his old age. ("Dark paean" may be an oxymoron.)

And Ecclesiastes is somber reading, indeed--grim nursing-home fodder. In it, "the Teacher"--the book's ostensible speaker--gives us such bright urgings as "those who increase knowledge increase sorrow" and "there is nothing new under the sun" and "dead flies make the perfumer’s ointment give off a foul odour."

These are not hopeful messages, but the Ecclesiastes author could have had a great career as an ironic greeting card writer. "Happy graduation! But remember, 'the wise die just like fools'." (The world would be a better place if there really were ironic greeting card writers.)

The Teacher's cheery aphorisms aside, the book's last chapter is the one that gives me pause. This epilogue, chapter 12, opens with a despair-inducing portrait of old age giving way to apocalypse: "Remember your creator in the days of your youth, before the days of trouble come, and the years draw near when you will say, ‘I have no pleasure in them’; before the sun and the light and the moon and the stars are darkened and the clouds return with the rain" (12:1-3). Such passages helped inspire Eliot to write "The Waste Land."

Now I'm not too old, so these verses don't sting much (yet) ... though the teens I teach make me dwell a little longer in the mirror over the darkening bags under my eyes. ("All is vanity," says the Teacher.)

But the last few verses of Ecclesiastes are especially painful to me. There, the author writes, "The sayings of the wise are like goads, and like nails firmly fixed are the collected sayings that are given by one shepherd. Of anything beyond these, my child, beware. Of making many books there is no end, and much study is a weariness of the flesh" (12:11-12).

Can this blog, into which I have put time and effort and energy, be the mindless "book-making" the Teacher discourages? Is the "goading" wisdom of the Bible--or of Ecclesiastes--"all ye know on earth," to quote Keats, "and all ye need to know"? Should I simply take the word of the Teacher in verse 13--"Fear God, and keep his commandments"--and stop all this cyberspatial bloviating? Perhaps.

But I'm too invested in my sinking ship of a project. Studying is my job, and "making of many books" will get me tenure someday, perhaps. So my blog will continue past 100 posts. But it will do so, I think, in spite of the Teacher's wise advice.
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Tuesday, September 7, 2010

2 Samuel 15: "The Hearts of the People"

How do you win the hearts of the people?

As midterm elections creep nearer in the United States, politicians across the country--or at least, sadly, those up for re-election--are trying very hard to come up with an answer.

On the left, President Obama has proposed two ideas likely intended to win voters' favor as November draws nigh: a capital investment tax credit for small businesses and a $50 billion public works plan to spur job growth and update infrastructure. (There's also a research tax break floating around somewhere.)

On the right, candidates are proposing less and crowing more; many echo a chorus I heard yesterday on the Howie Carr Show: "Are you better off than you were two years ago?" Presumably, Republicans' answer is "no." (It's worth noting that the time frame--two years--has been halved since Reagan coined the phrase in his debates with Carter thirty years ago. I wonder how low politicians can go? "Are you better off than you were fifteen minutes ago? No? Then vote for Michele Bachmann! ... Yes? Did you eat a sandwich? Oh. That makes sense.")

But at least one politician in the Bible--and a nefarious one at that--knew something that Obama and the right seem to have forgotten in the sturm und drang of the midterm election season: that winning the hearts of the people has less to do with talking than it does with listening.

That "politician" is Absalom, the son of King David who, for a brief moment, usurps his father's throne. (Marc Chagall's depiction of Absalom's reconciliation with his father appears above.)

For some, Absalom is a classic villain. He is a conspiring murderer who gains power through deceit and subterfuge. But for others, he's a man looking to settle scores in the wake of a heinous wrong.

Absalom has a beautiful sister--for whom he cares deeply--named Tamar. However, he's also got a half-brother, Amnon, with a taste for half-incest. Amnon falls hard for Tamar, rapes her, and discards her. But when David hears of his son's disgusting sin, he fails to punish him; actually, he fails to do anything: "When King David heard of all these things, he became very angry, but he would not punish his son Amnon, because he loved him, for he was his firstborn" (2 Samuel 13:21).

Understandably, Absalom is livid--at Amnon for his crime and at David for his blind eye. But Absalom is also the classic snake in the grass; diabolically, he waits two full years for his revenge, catching Amnon completely unawares and slaughtering him at a feast. (He intends to do in his father too, but David does not show.) David, however, is consistently soft on his princes gone wild, and he stands by as his homicidal son flees.

When Absalom returns, at his father's request, he still harbors a deep hatred for the king and plans his overthrow. But dethroning this particular monarch--the spectacularly popular David--is no small feat. So Absalom adopts a surprisingly simple strategy for winning the people to his side: he listens to them.

Here is the author of 2 Samuel to explain:

"Absalom used to rise early and stand beside the road into the gate; and when anyone brought a suit before the king for judgement, Absalom would call out and say, ‘From what city are you?’ When the person said, ‘Your servant is of such and such a tribe in Israel’, Absalom would say, ‘See, your claims are good and right; but there is no one deputed by the king to hear you.’ Absalom said moreover, ‘If only I were judge in the land! Then all who had a suit or cause might come to me, and I would give them justice.’ Whenever people came near to do obeisance to him, he would put out his hand and take hold of them, and kiss them. Thus Absalom did to every Israelite who came to the king for judgement; so Absalom stole the hearts of the people of Israel" (15: 2-6).

Note two things: first, Absalom asks the first question. He inquires of the supplicant, reversing the expected roles. (Usually, you address the prince; the prince does not address you--not so here.) Then, he sympathizes with the travelers, telling them that their cause is legitimate. I know from countless hours in graduate seminars that the words "You have a good point" are some of the most empowering in the language.

Second, when the person seeking "judgement" tries to bow to Absalom--to "do obeisance to him"--his immediate response is a kiss and an embrace.

The implicit message of these two movements is clear: I hear you, and I love you.

And the rest barely need be said: the king isn't available right now. Can you leave a message?

Notice that Absalom never actually resolves any of the cases brought before him. Indeed, we learn nothing of the complaints of the Israelites, and perhaps we know that Absalom doesn't care. But the mere act of bearing witness is enough to sate the people's appetite for a leader. And with it, "Absalom stole the hearts of the people of Israel."

This word "stole" is of course telling, and it reminds us that Absalom does not have the best interests of his people in mind. Nonetheless, his pantomime is enough to inspire a majority to join his de facto revolt.

So do you hear me, President Obama? John Boehner? And Reid and Angle and Feingold and McCain and the rest? Talking is pretty. But listening? That's power.
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