Religion Today

Thursday, June 30, 2011

Imagine All the People

I don't think that the former Beatle John Lennon had capitalism in mind when he wrote his famous song "Imagine" in 1971, but maybe the international capitalist system of trade has fulfilled the final sentiment of the song, "I hope . . . the world will live as one."

The human population has come closer together through the Internet, through easy communication via cell phone and through cheap and ready transportation via airplane. People on one part of the globe can access people on any other part. Through capitalist trade networks, we can purchase food grown by farmers halfway around the world and can buy products made by workers on the other side of the planet.
So maybe world-wide capitalism and its associated products have made the "world . . . live as one."
Not as Lennon envisioned it. Another verse suggests, "Imagine . . . a brotherhood of man. Imagine all the people sharing all the world." Capitalism's world is not one of sharing, but one of buying and selling, of making money. It is not a world of brotherhood, but a world of exchange and finance.
So what did Lennon convey about human brotherhood, about the unity of all people? 
The song points to three features of human society that stand in the way of achieving this unity, suggesting that these are what divide us: Religion ("Imagine there's no heaven"), politics ("Imagine there's no countries"), and economics ("Imagine no possessions").
Capitalism applies to the last of these. It has eliminated barriers of trade, inspiring us to overcome separation deriving from geography, language and even nationality. It has brought us closer to each other, but it is based on having and acquiring possessions; it certainly does not eliminate them.
Of course Lennon's song is not admired because people want to get rid of their belongings. Its popularity comes from the opening line, "Imagine there's no heaven." It has been widely seen as anti-religion and has been used as a theme song by people questioning religions and their supernatural beliefs.
That's interesting, because in the capitalist push toward integration, the world's religions have proved most resistant to homogenization. While we all buy the same TVs and DVD players (e.g., Sony and Samsung), athletic shoes (e.g., Nike and Adidas), cars (e.g., Toyota and Ford), and cell phones (e.g., Nokia, Motorola, and Apple), few of us have changed our religion.
Despite population growth in recent decades, the percentage of members of the different religions remains more or less the same. There has been no big shift into or out of Christianity, Islam, Hinduism or Buddhism-to mention just the four largest religions.
So although the West has successfully peddled its products, its movies and entertainment, its clothing styles and its science and technology, it has failed to get others to accept its religion. While missionaries have been fruitful in pockets, these are the exception rather than the rule.
The imperviousness of the world's major religions to Christianity has stymied us. Despite the inner variety in each religion and the ongoing changes within each one, they seem an impenetrable wall to many of us, as something too massive to understand.
And since religions claim to define ultimate reality, that is bothersome. Being confronted with a strong religion whose adherents believe in an incompatible version of god (or gods) and the world beyond this one can be quite disconcerting. That confrontation causes doubt about one's own beliefs concerning the ultimate, which in turn causes shame and the denial of that doubt, and finally the rejection of the cause of the doubt.
Rather than naturally leading to tolerance of other religions, such religious differences bring unthinking rejection and even fear. We see this reaction to other religions, especially Islam, among many Americans today.
But the alternative of unthinking tolerance is only marginally better. Getting rid of rejection and fear as well as the hatred they engender is good, but tolerance without understanding requires the suspension of the faculties of evaluation and judgment we use daily. It returns us to an immature state of naiveté.
What we need is to understand other religions in greater detail. To engage them, we need to understand the varieties of belief, thought, and practice within them. We need to differentiate between the pronouncements of religious leaders, government representatives, demagogues and troublemakers, as we have finally learnt from the "Arab Spring" to understand the difference between rulers' claims and their people's desire for a good life. To translate Lennon's ideas, we have to listen to others and imagine their lives before we react to them.
Note: This column was inspired by the new play by Wyoming playwright William Missouri Downs, "Forgiving John Lennon."

Thursday, June 16, 2011

The Oral Character of the Written King James Bible

This year constitutes the 400th anniversary of the King James Bible. Originally created by England’s Anglican Church, it became widely used by all Protestant denominations in America until the twentieth century, as both a pulpit and a personal Bible.

Despite the increasingly old-fashioned character of its language, it was not until the 1950s that a second translation, the Revised Standard Version, gained a foothold in American Protestantism.

Today, the King James Bible, or the KJV as it is often known (the “V” is for “Version”), still has a revered place among Evangelical Protestantism. The Scofield Reference Bible, widely used among Evangelicals, relies upon it. And although the New International Version has recently gained popularity as a personal Bible, the KJV remains the pulpit Bible for many churches.

Of course the Gideons continue to place a copy of the KJV in every hotel room in the United States. They believe that an individual alone can read the Bible and by themselve gain an understanding of God.

This attitude derives from the sixteenth-century declaration by the Reformer Martin Luther that the authority for true Christianity rested on “Scripture alone.” Since that time, Protestantism has envisioned each individual believer knowing the Bible. The ideal Christian became someone who read and studied their Bible extensively. Today, most devout Christians own a personal Bible, which they read regularly by themselves.

The achievement of this ideal within modern Evangelicalism has made us forget that for most of Christianity’s history, this ideal was impossible for all but a few. During 95% of its history, the overwhelming majority of Christians could not read.

Until the twentieth century, near universal literacy existed nowhere on earth. Only then, in Europe, did 90% of adults acquire the ability to read. In 1675, 64 years after the KJV’s publication, only about 45% of adult males in England could even sign their name at their marriage; for women the percentage was significantly lower. Even in 1850, the best estimates put adult literacy in Europe at no more than 50%. American literacy rates were similar.

During most of its history, then, the KJV functioned quite differently from the personal, private use so widespread today. When it was published, it was intended to be read aloud, and that was its primary use until the end of the nineteenth century.

People who can read the Bible gain a sense of its organization as a text and of its character as a physical object. They know how large it is, whether considered in number of words (lots), number of books (about 80), or just its size (fat). Those who become familiar with it learn the order of its books and develop a sense of the total amount of stories, moral tales, parables, law codes, admonitions and prophecies the book contains.

Those who only hear the Bible read and cannot read it for themselves learn about much of it contents, but they never gain a sense of the book as a written text. Because they always depend on a reader, they never acquire any direct access to the text itself.

They know its contents as the material is read to them over the years, in whatever order it is read and whatever passages are selected. They may develop a sense of organization from some of its longer stories, but most oral readings present shorter passages. Just reading a few chapters out loud can take nearly an hour. Hearers will not gain understanding of the Bible’s organization; it will seem an unorganized collection to them.

Moreover, hearers will rarely gain a sense that they know everything in the Bible. They can always be surprised by some passage they have not heard before. Although many churches have a liturgical calendar that guides regular scripture reading, such calendars present selected readings rather than the entire Bible.

Furthermore, liturgical calendars often feature different readings from different places in Scripture together. The Anglican approach for each Sunday includes an Old Testament passage, a reading from the New Testament letters, and a selection from the Gospels.

So until the twentieth century, the success of the King James Bible came much more from its use for oral presentation of Scripture, than from its use as a personal Bible. This is not surprising, for the poetic beauty of much of its language was intended to be heard. The oral hearing of the Bible gave Christians a different sense of Scripture than individual private reading. It is only by the mid-twentieth century, when most Christians can read the Bible by themselves, that a translation whose language is more up-to-date can make headway against the long-standing popularity of the KJV.

Wednesday, June 01, 2011

Harold Camping and William Miller: Soul Mates?

As most people expected, Harold Camping's prediction of the Rapture did not come to pass on May 21. Based on his interpretation of the Bible, Camping had calculated that true Christians would be taken up to heaven on that date. When this did not happen, most of his followers were disappointed.

Camping himself found the failure of the predicted event surprising, to say the least. On May 22, Camping's wife let it be known that he was "confused," and Camping himself later confessed, "When May 21 came and went, it was a very difficult time for me, a very difficult time. I really, really was praying and praying and praying, ‘Oh Lord, what happened?'"

Since May 21, Camping has come out with a new interpretation. While May 21 was a key date, the events took place in a spiritual realm, not in the physical realm of this world. It was an "invisible judgment day," but not the Rapture. Instead, Camping now claims, God is saving the main event for Oct. 21, 2011. On that day, the entire Earth will be destroyed in a massive fireball.

History is repeating itself. More that 150 years ago, William Miller went through a similar set of predictions and disappointments which he handled in a similar way, namely by spiritualizing the events.

Miller began by predicting "Jesus Christ will come again to this Earth, to cleanse, purify, and take possession of the same, with all the saints, sometime between March 21, 1843 and March 21, 1844." When nothing happened on March 21, 1844, Miller's followers saw it as a mere miscalculation. A new predicted date was given: April 18. When this date passed without event, Millerites, as his followers were known, decided this was a spiritual "tarrying time" when Jesus "the bridegroom" delayed, as in the parable opening Matthew 25.

A couple months later, Samuel Snow, a staunch believer in Miller's prophecies, predicted that Christ would return for his believing saints on Oct. 22, 1844. (Is Camping's similar date just a coincidence? Probably.) When nothing took place on that day, the Millerites suffered their "Great Disappointment." Many people left the movement. Those who stayed believed that Jesus had come to the door of the world, where he was "tarrying" so that more people could believe and be saved before the "advent" of Jesus' appearance.

The general notion of Jesus' imminent arrival became so widespread among the Millerites, they became known as "Adventists." Of course, there were several different versions of this belief, which led to the formation of different groups.

Ellen White became a leader of the largest group of Adventists. She and her followers withdrew to Battle Creek, Mich., where in 1863 they formally organized the Seventh-Day Adventist Church. From there, successive generations of members have fanned out across the world to evangelize. In 2007, they were listed as the world's 12th largest religious organization, with 16 million members ( ).

Seventh-Day Adventists became interested in healthy living and emphasized vegetarianism. As an alternative to the breakfasts of bacon or sausage, then common in America, John Harvey Kellogg developed a grain-based breakfast cereal. His brother, W. K. Kellogg, in 1906 formed a company to market such foot. Its first product? Kellogg's corn flakes.

The activities surrounding Camping's predictions have similarities to Millerism beyond the spiritualization of failed prophecies. Both the Millerites and Camping promoted their beliefs widely. The Millerites used newspapers, beginning with established publications and moving on to their own broadsheets. Millions were published and distributed. Camping has used his radio network, the Internet and billboards.

Miller's followers came from a variety of Protestant denominations, or none at all. This is similar to Camping's followers. Neither man worked through an organized church structure. Most people could believe and follow their predictions without disruption to religious beliefs already held.

If the historical parallels between Camping's and Miller's followers continue, then we can expect a Great Disappointment among the "Campingites" after nothing happens on Oct. 21. Many people will abandon the belief, but some will retain it and give it a spiritual interpretation. In the following years, a new denomination will be organized that interweaves Camping's beliefs with elements of evangelical Protestantism.