It's the End of the World as We Know It . . . And I Feel Fine. Sorta.

MissedChurchEvilDrm The hoopla this week about the May 21st Apocalypse (capital A) has shown me that you can take the girl outta the religion but ya can't take the religion outta the girl. Or at least outta her hindbrain. Having been a more than 20-year member of what I realize in retrospect is an apocalyptic religion, I've found it hard to shake those nasty little "but what if they're right?" voices every time I hear a doomsday prophecy.I spent so many years living with the idea that the World (not the planet, but the current systems of governments and societies) was going to one day cease to exist in a cataclysmic event, I still get a little frisson of terror whenever I hear mad prophets. Like the doctrine of hell (which was not part of our belief system), the Apocalypse is just another way to keep your followers towing the line and donating, and the core of that success is fear: fear of death, fear of rejection, fear of making the wrong choices.

The tragedy of living like this is that it stunts your life. People who leave my former religion (and other similar ones) are often embittered not just by their experiences, but by what they've missed. The emphasis in these religions, more than mainstream ones, is always on the world to come, whether it's heaven or a New World Order of some kind here on earth. You're told that your life here and now is just biding time, that you shouldn't invest too much in it, or make big plans, or try to get rich, or have any sort of ambition that doesn't involve serving God. If you do have desires outside that narrow focus, you're accused of being "worldly," i.e., heathen and ungodly, or just plain wicked. Serving God almost invariably involves not having a lot of money, or a good job, or a nice home. As a consequence, members spend a lot of time policing each other for their materialism and focus. But without ambition of some kind, without a desire to improve yourself, one's life remains stagnant and stunted, in more ways than one.

15-Leonhardt-popup-v3 For instance, according to data from the Pew Forum on Religion and Public life, Jehovah's Witnesses are among the poorest and the least-educated of religious groups. There's a reason for this. College attendance has, until lately, been actively discouraged. It's been seen as the quickest way to get your children to leave the faith, and there's some truth in that. A good college education gives people analytical abilities and exposes them to new sources of information. It's hard to swallow the party line hook, line, and sinker when you start asking questions. Absolute faith (though not spirituality) relies on unquestioning belief as well as the desire to belong. I'm not saying anything new here, but one of the ways to get people to not question your doctrine is to make them afraid of losing something precious, like their lives, their friends, their community. This is what apocalyptic dogma is all about. And fear is a really effective brainwashing tool, no matter how well-educated and analytical you are.

So most of the people I grew up with who were JWs got married young, didn't go to college, wound up working blue-collar jobs for not much money. But I went off to college, thanks to my mom's firm belief in education for women and the necessity of women's economic independence. For this, both of us were vilified as bad influences. Bad enough my mom was married to an unbeliever (though fellow traveler). Worse that she planned to send me off into the world, instead of making sure I ended up barefoot and pregnant, volunteering 20 hours a week to the door-to-door ministry. But I couldn't see myself staying in Northern Michigan for the rest of my life, and I had no desire to get married and have babies, and even less to proselytize. I was too intellectually hungry, and ironically enough, five hours of Bible study a week helped make me that way; that was were I got my first tastes of history and literary criticism, where I learned the rudiments of close reading, and the wondrous complexity of creation. So off I went to college, where I did, indeed, gradually "fall away" from the religion I'd been raised in, as I learned more about history, science, and biblical studies. But the fear of the Apocalypse, of making the wrong choices, never left me.

 When I was a kid, I used to love reading post-apocalyptic novels. One of my favorites was A Canticle for Liebowitz by Walter Miller, published the year I was born. If you haven't read it, it's worth the effort, not so much for the view of life after nuclear war as for the big picture Miller paints of the cycles of history, the rise and fall of civilizations, and how religion creates its doctrines and saints. That long view is one of the ideas that influenced my interest in history, and the long view of its cycles I've always found so fascinating. In addition, I gobbled up Frank Herbert's The White Plague, Nevil Shute's On the Beach, Pat Frank's Alas, Babylon, and a lot of J.G. Ballard and Philip K. Dick. Need I mention Blade Runner? This was sparked by the same impulse that makes people watch monster movies; everybody likes a good scare. Most of these apocalypses were death by nuclear war or natural disaster, not fire from heaven or the manifestation of God's power on earth, so they weren't frightening in the same way. What I was really fascinated by was the way society began to pick itself up and put itself together again afterwards, and what the critical mass of people to do this was. There were only 3 million JWs then; was that enough to repopulate the earth and maintain civilization? Or were we going to crash back into the Dark Ages? That seemed more and more likely the longer I ran the numbers and studied history. And that grew less and less attractive too.

2012 We Were WarnedAs I became more conscious and aware of the world around me, disasters didn't seem so interesting and the people I came in contact with didn't seem so horrible, for all their worldliness. And, I discovered, there were some amoral assholes inside my church too. The Apocalypse began to seem more horrible, more arbitrary, more malicious. My taste for post-apocalyptic fiction finally bottomed out with the AIDS crisis. The idea that a loving God would visit that kind of horror on decent people who didn't worship Him in this particular way became more and more abhorrent to me. That was not what I wanted in a god. After a while, I wasn't even sure I wanted a god at all. They seemed to be more of a pain in the ass than not. Now, when I watch the previews for something like the movie 2012, images of the wholesale slaughter of what Douglas Adams called "mostly harmless" people don't give me a cheap thrill, they nauseate me. But it still scares the crap out of me. There's nothing rational about it; it's completely visceral, a conditioned response. And that, I totally resent.

There are too many real problems in the real world that need to be fixed or at least mitigated for me to waste time being afraid of an imaginary disaster. I resent the way this dogma blinds people to the disasters that are going on around them right now and makes them think only God can fix these things, the way it strips away responsibility for crapping in our own back yard, the way it fosters learned helplessness. We've got a genuine apocalypse looming, one that's of our own making—climate change—that the same people who spout off about the Rapture are happy to ignore. Well, I got news for you folks, and it ain't Good News: nobody's going to save you or any of us when this natural disaster happens. Start scaring your people with the real thing. We need all the help we can get. Turn some of that money and effort into education and influence for saving the world we've got now, not waiting for someone else to destroy it.

Day Late and Dollar Short

Confusedmoi Did nobody get the irony of this? Did no one step back and say, "wait a minute: haven't I seen this somewhere before? Didn't we get in trouble the last time we did this?" And didn't somebody think it was a little odd to be praying for money? Unless you're Cindy Jacobs, I guess. I suspect her stock portfolio has tanked in a big way and her broker needs an intervention. But, you know, the site is just a tad off, what with its association with, say, golden calves, Mammon, and other gods implicated in idolatry. Isn't there a commandment about this?

Bullprayer2 According to CBN, "Cindy is calling for a Day  of Prayer for the World’s Economies on Wednesday, October 29, 2008. They are calling for prayer for the stock markets, banks, and financial institutions of the world on the date the stock market crashed in 1929. They are meeting at the New York Stock Exchange, the Federal Reserve Bank, and its 12 principal branches around the US that day." Sez Ms. Jacobs:

“We are going to intercede at the site of the statue of the bull on Wall Street to ask God to begin a shift from the bull and bear markets to what we feel will be the 'Lion’s Market,' or God’s control over the economic systems,” she said.  “While we do not have the full revelation of all this will entail, we do know that without intercession, economies will crumble.”

Sheesh, nobody reads the Hebrew Scriptures anymore.

Where to Begin: Books

LibrarymoiFor me, everything begins with books. It always has. I always loved to read, like both my parents, and the believers I grew up with took their Bible study very seriously, churning out numerous aids in the shape of books and magazines used in the five meetings per week, most of which were "classes" with the exception of one public lecture a week. I still have my gigantic library of reference and study aids, some of it now on CD; the Bible encyclopedias they published were particularly useful. But only a few of their study aids moved me or seemed, after I learned what good scholarship was, meaty enough. And, of course, there was no mention of controversies or disagreements among scholars. We were all in accord, though the worlds of relgious and Biblical scholarship are pretty contentious. The arguments about the Dead Sea Scrolls alone have filled multiple volumes.

I spent much of my twenties reading feminist theory as it came out (no women's studies departments in my day), some of which had to do with women and organized religion, especially medieval monasticism. In my thirties, I started reading more and more outside the prescribed literature of my own faith, reading church history both feminist and mainstream, reading about other people's searches for a spiritual path, and other spiritual paths in general, especially Buddhism. I've long been fascinated by Zen and meditation in general, so a lot of my recent reading is in that direction. Likewise, I've always been interested in Christian church history, as a former medievalist, and fascinated by monasticism, church architecture and sacred music. Many of Bach's church organ compositions are my favorite pieces of music and the Monteverdi 1610 Vespers has been known to make me weep. But I digress. As powerful as music is, it's only ever an adjunct to knowledge for me, and that comes from the written word. Exegesis is in my blood.

Some of the books I've been reading recently are over in the sidebar, but others I read in the past were more scholarly tomes. I thought I'd list some of them here. This is by no means an exhaustive list and it's very idiosyncratic and somewhat dated in places. I'll be the first to admit I haven't kept up on the scholarship, A few people in the field I can highly recommend: Elaine Pagels (read everything she's written), Peter Brown, and Kathleen Norris. It's been a while since I did an annotated bibliography, so bear with me. It won't be standard MLA or CMS style and these are in no particular order, not even alphabetical. Thanks to the magic of hyperlinks, it doesn't really need to be. Please, if you've got other recommendations, add 'em in the comments! I'm always interested to see what other people are reading.

  1. Holy Anorexia, by Rudolph M. Bell.  This was one of the first I read about women in the Church and it was a fascinating study of women exerting control and exercising the only power they had in the medieval church, control over their own bodies, as a way of connecting to God. Sheds some interesting light on contemporary eating disorders too.
  2. Adam, Eve and the Serpent: Sex and Politics in Early Christianity, by Elaine Pagels. Pagels is one of the foremost experts on the early church, especially what the mainstream now thinks of as its heretical elements like Gnosticism. She's made something of a specialty of lost texts, from the Gospel of Thomas to the Gospel of Judas. This, by contrast, is a study of how the mainstream church came to find sexual desire and activity sinful in its early centuries.
  3. Eunuchs For the Kingdom of Heaven: Women, Sexuality, and the Catholic Church, by Uta Ranke-Heinemann covers similar ground but follows it into the present. A little heavy going, but definitely worth the read.
  4. On a similar theme, but much more controversial was Yale scholar John Boswell's Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality: Gay People in Western Europe from the Beginning of the Christian Era to the Fourteenth Century. That and his Same Sex Unions in Pre-Modern Europe are landmark studies.
  5. Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why by Bart D. Ehrman, is a great study of the copyists and translators of the Bible and their political and religious agendas throughout the centuries. Ehrman, Chair of the Dept. of Religious Studies at Chapel Hill, is not well liked by the fundamentalists, needless to say. There are a slew of books contradicting him too, but I haven't read those. I find his research and arguments pretty convincing.
  6. Alistair McGrath's In the Beginning: The story of the King James Bible and How It Changed a Nation, a Language, and a Culture provide a great example of what Ehrman is talking about, and dovetails nicely with his book.
  7. Heavier going but worth the effort is James L. Kugel's The Bible As It Was, which is similar to Misquoting Jesus, but with the emphasis on the Old Testament and not the New this time.
  8. I'm always drawn to those limnal spaces where one thing becomes another, so I particularly liked Robin Lane Fox's Pagans and Christians: Religious and the Religious Life from the Second to the Fourth Century AD, when the Gods of Olympus Lost Their Dominion and Christianity, with the Conversion of Constantine, Triumphed in the Mediterranean World. That subtitle sort of says it all. You'll be surprised where many of those saints and festivals and traditions in the Church came from.
  9. Ditto in Richard Fletcher's The Barbarian Conversion: From Paganism to Christianity. Appalling how many of those symbols and holidays are not really all that Christian. Like, oh, Christmas? Easter?

I also read a lot of books about spiritual journeys of one sort or another, not all of which were particularly interesting or relevant. In addition to Eat Pray Love and Escape over in the sidebar, there are these three that moved me.

  1. The Cloister Walk by Kathleen Norris. Written by a Presbyterian with a fascination for monastic life that mirrors my own, this is as much a meditation on community and faith as it is on monasticism. Really moving in places and very smart, as well as beautifully written.
  2. The Spiral Staircase: My Climb Out of Darkness by Karen Armstrong. She's considered kind of an outsider scholar, one whose work is less rigorous than academics usually are, but that's part of her virtue. This book is more personal, but no less important. Armstrong spent many unhappy years in a convent and this chronicles her return or embrace of the secular world. Smart, sad, and fascinating.
  3. Leaving the Saints: How I Lost the Mormons and Found My Faith, by Martha Beck. In a completely different way, this is just as harrowing as Escape (see sidebar), though this is mainstream Mormonism and not the fundamentalist, polygamist type. This makes clear the literal second-class citizenship of Mormon women in their own church and how demoralizing it is wherever it's practiced.

And there are a few books about the intersections of science and religion that I think are worth considering too:

  1. The Dalai Lama's The Universe in a Single Atom: The Convergence of Science and Spirituality, which is mostly about quantum physics but also touches on neuroscience and how similar the explanations of relevant theories in those fields parallel the philosophies of Buddhism. Hmmmmm. . . I like the Dalai Lama's easy acceptance of "what is" and lack of desire to make it fit what ought to be according to his own belief structure.
  2. Paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould's Rocks of Ages: Science and Religion in the Fullness of Life. Gould got more than the usual flack for this book, but like most of his writing, I find it pretty balanced. It manages to avoid the "There can be only one" mindset and contempt that so many religion-hating scientists and science-hating religious have for each other. He also offers, I think, the only logical solution to the problem.
  3. The Marriage of Sense and Soul: Integrating Science and Religion, by Ken Wilbur, who alternately irritates and impresses me. Sometimes he's a little too flaky for my taste (unlike pie crust, which can never be too flaky), sometimes he seems right on the money. Sometimes he's also a little too full of himself; but then, aren't we all at times? Definitely worth the read, especially on this subject.

I'll probably be working my way through this subject area for a while yet, so I'll keep you posted in the sidebar.

There were also magazines like Shambala Sun, Tricycle, and Buddahdharma. I've been doing a lot of reading about Buddhisms, lately and it's as instructive to read the letters to the editor as it is the main articles and book reviews. Each one definitely has a different focus and is more and less geared for the non-practitioner. Start with Shambala Sun, if you're a newbie like me. If you're interested in myth and religion, Parabola is also pretty cool. I don't read it that often, but I'm never sorry when I do.

Please keep in mind that these are just books I've read on my own journey. You many not find them either interesting or relevant.