A Post

Apologies for my blogging silence of late. A cartoon shared by Kennesaw State’s David Parker sums it up well:

Although, I am pleased that I got to have dinner tonight with Dan Audia ’08, who has recently been promoted to Assistant Director of MBA Programs at the Coles College of Business at Kennesaw State University. Dan says that he:

currently manages enrollment for the KSU MBA and WebMBA programs, specifically the areas of admissions and academic advisement. Our team provides top-notch customer service from prospective student inquiry to current student graduation. Our efforts for recruitment, retention,and progression to graduation are aimed at maintaining the high quality of the programs as demonstrated by several national rankings.

Dan told me about an interesting blog entitled Faith and History: Thinking Christianly about the American Past, run by Robert Tracy McKenzie, professor of history at Wheaton College in Illinois. He hasn’t updated it in a while, but I quite enjoyed perusing his back catalogue, including this post:

The belief that the Pilgrims came to America in search of religious freedom is inspiring, but in the sense that we usually mean it, it’s not really true. I’ve shared this reality numerous times since writing The First Thanksgiving: What the Real Story Tells Us about Loving God and Learning from History, and I almost always get pushback from the audience. That’s understandable, since most of us from our childhood have been raised to believe quite the opposite. But if we’re going to really learn from the Pilgrims’ story, we need to be willing to listen to them instead of putting words into their mouths.

One of my favorite all-time quotes is from Democracy in America where Alexis de Tocqueville observes, “A false but clear and precise idea always has more power in the world than one which is true but complex.” The Pilgrims’ motives for coming to America is a case in point.

The popular understanding that the Pilgrims came to America “in search of religious freedom” is technically true, but it is also misleading. It is technically true in that the freedom to worship according to the dictates of Scripture was at the very top of their list of priorities. They had already risked everything to escape religious persecution, and the majority never would have knowingly chosen a destination where they would once again wear the “yoke of antichristian bondage,” as they described their experience in England.

To say that the Pilgrims came “in search of” religious freedom is misleading, however, in that it implies that they lacked such liberty in Holland. Remember that the Pilgrims did not come to America directly from England. They had left England in 1608, locating briefly in Amsterdam before settling for more than a decade in Leiden. If a longing for religious freedom alone had compelled them, they might never have left that city. Years later, the Pilgrim’s governor, William Bradford, recalled that in Leiden God had allowed them “to come as near the primitive pattern of the first churches as any other church of these later times.” As Pilgrim Edward Winslow recalled, God had blessed them with “much peace and liberty” in Holland. They hoped to find “the like liberty” in their new home.

More at the link.

Jim Jones and Harvey Milk

In City Journal, a review of an interesting new book: Daniel J. Flynn’s Cult City: Jim Jones, Harvey Milk, and 10 Days That Shook San Francisco. Excerpt:

Having moved his flock to northern California in the 1960s, [Jim] Jones began leveraging their labor toward political ends, volunteering them for protests or electioneering on behalf of friendly aspirants to public office. Gaining the respect of San Francisco’s political class, Jones became a player in his own right. Many gave him credit for Moscone’s tight victory in the 1975 mayoral runoff, and he was appointed head of the San Francisco Housing Authority. Praised as a hero of social justice and a crusader for racial equality, Jones became an important figure in Democratic politics.

Among his advocates was Harvey Milk, also a newcomer to San Francisco. Milk, formerly a Goldwater Republican, became politically radical in California and repeatedly sought election to office as an outsider to the political machine. Milk attended services at Peoples Temple dozens of times, and wrote effusive letters to Jones. “Such greatness I have found in Jim Jones’s Peoples Temple,” Milk proclaimed.

Milk wasn’t Jones’s only fan. Many powerful people—Governor Jerry Brown, columnist Herb Caen, and Vice President Walter Mondale, to name a few—sought Jones’s blessings and expressed admiration for his dedication to racial equality and a better world. Flynn does a good job of laying out the social and political landscape of the Bay Area in the late seventies and situating the bizarre respect that the Jones cult received within the general fruitiness of the era. Jim Jones’s Bay Area was the same milieu that gave rise to the Zodiac killer, the lost-in-time Zebra murders, and the depredations of the Symbionese Liberation Army. In that context, a wacky preacher who healed the sick and ran drug-treatment centers while promising a racially unified heaven on earth seemed like a salutary influence by comparison.

Read the whole thing, or buy the book.

November 5

On November 5, 1605, the House of Lords was supposed to have been blown up by a group of Roman Catholic conspirators who were disappointed that the newly-crowned King James had not relaxed the anti-Catholic policies of his predecessor, Queen Elizabeth. Had the plot succeeded, James would have been killed at the State Opening of Parliament, along with a good many other English grandees. But the plot was exposed, and the principal conspirators, including Guy Fawkes, who was found guarding 36 barrels of gunpowder that had been placed in the House of Lords, were all arrested, convicted, and executed.

“A late 17th or early 18th-century report of the plot.” Wikipedia.

Since that time, the Fifth of November has been celebrated as a triumph of British Protestantism against the wicked forces of papistry. To this day, it serves an excuse to throw a stuffed “Guy” (or even a pope) onto a bonfire, or at least set off fireworks (I lived in London once, and can attest to this). I assume that the anti-Catholicism of the celebration has been downplayed in recent years, and that the fifth of November is simply the British equivalent of Hallowe’en – an occasion of autumn revelry.

“A contemporary engraving of eight of the thirteen conspirators, by Crispijn van de Passe. Missing are Digby, Keyes, Rookwood, Grant, and Tresham.” Wikipedia.

I have always been curious why the Fifth of November fell out of favor in the American colonies. Why don’t we celebrate it here anymore? Why did the Irish custom of Hallowe’en take off in from the nineteenth century? Apparently George Washington found it embarrassing. As he wrote in 1775:

As the Commander in Chief has been apprized of a design form’d for the observance of that ridiculous and childish custom of burning the Effigy of the pope—He cannot help expressing his surprise that there should be Officers and Soldiers in this army so void of common sense, as not to see the impropriety of such a step at this Juncture; at a Time when we are solliciting, and have really obtain’d, the friendship and alliance of the people of Canada, whom we ought to consider as Brethren embarked in the same Cause. The defence of the general Liberty of America: At such a juncture, and in such Circumstances, to be insulting their Religion, is so monstrous, as not to be suffered or excused; indeed instead of offering the most remote insult, it is our duty to address public thanks to these our Brethren, as to them we are so much indebted for every late happy Success over the common Enemy in Canada.

Alas, such consideration was not enough to win the French colonists to the cause of Revolution (thus does Canada exist today!), but apparently it had a permanent effect.

But as I wrote before, the casting of Guy Fawkes as a sort of anarchist freedom fighter has been one of the more remarkable transformations I’ve ever witnessed.

Sacraments

I thought of something today while lecturing. Over the course of the Middle Ages, the church tended to downplay the importance of relics, and to play up the importance of the sacraments. I suppose the obvious fraud involved in the relic trade might have been embarrassing, but the main reason for the shift is because sacraments were performative, and required a priest to deliver them. Thus, they were easier to control than relics. You could cut someone off from the sacraments in a way that you could not prevent him from acquiring relics, or gifting (or selling) them to someone else.

It reminded me of the current movement to digitize everything and to deliver it wirelessly. If I buy a codex, the publisher and the author get their cut. But the book, as an object, is mine forever – or until I sell it on to someone else, at which point originators don’t get a cut at all. CDs and DVDs are dead media – songs and movies now exist mostly in cyberspace, and you have to pay to download them – and you can’t sell them on, and they can disappear from your “library” if you’ve watched or listened to them too many times, or you somehow violate the terms of service. My hunch is that the secondary market for content has always been highly annoying to its creators, and they will do anything they can to delegitimize it. Having everything electronic, and under their control, must be a godsend to them.

Mass was probably the most important sacrament, since it represented spiritual sustenance. The medieval Catholic understanding of this was that “this is my body” meant exactly that: that when a priest uttered these words in a liturgical context, the bread transubstantiated into the actual flesh of Jesus, and the wine into his actual blood. Even though these elements retained the forms of bread and wine, their essences had been fundamentally altered, and to consume them meant that you were physically united with your lord and savior. It also meant that wine was optional: if you were to tear off a hunk of your flesh, it would have some blood in it. Thus does the consecrated bread “count” in a way that the wine doesn’t (although I’m sure there was also a practical, cost-saving impulse behind this custom).

Since consuming bread and wine “in memory of me” had been instituted by Jesus himself, Protestants are not free to disregard it, as they did monasticism and extreme unction. However, what it actually meant was a topic of great debate during the Reformation. Generally, the more Protestant you were, the less frequently you took it, and the less miraculous it was. This has led to a great variety of Christian customs, which I have jotted down. When you go to consume bread and wine as part of a church service:

What will you call it (Mass, Eucharist, Communion, Lord’s Supper, etc.)?
What is the nature of the bread and the wine once consecrated?
Will your altar be made of stone or wood? Will you even have one?
Will you take it standing, kneeling, or sitting?
Will you take it at the altar, or in your pew?
How often will it be served (weekly, biweekly, quarterly, etc.)?
Will you take bread alone, or both bread and wine?
How old will you need to be before you can take it, and will you have to pass through some other rite (e.g. confirmation) before you can?
Will your bread be leavened or unleavened?
Will wine be served, or grape juice?
Will the wine/grape juice be served in a chalice, or in little cups? Will you allow these things?
If you serve wine in a chalice, will you allow intinction (dipping the bread in the wine)?
Is it an expression of sectarianism, i.e. do you have to be a formal member of the denomination in question, before you can take it?

Some of these are arbitrary, but others are of great significance indeed.

Mormons

I just discovered an insightful TNR review essay by Jackson Lears, a relic of Mitt Romney’s presidential bid in 2012. A choice quotation:

In many ways the history of the Mormons follows the classic pattern described by Max Weber, Ernst Troeltsch, and other sociologists of Christianity: the routinization of charisma, the transformation of an ecstatic sect into an institutional church, and of the Mormon Ethic into the Spirit of Capitalism. But such an account neglects the persistence of Mormon beliefs, which mix familiarity with strangeness. The familiar parts evoke central themes in popular American evangelicalism—the faith in bodily resurrection and the reunification of families in heaven; the waning but still powerful sense of millennial expectancy, which encourages the stockpiling of goods for Armageddon; the conviction that America has a divinely ordained part to play in the sacred drama of world history, with Mormons themselves cast in the leading roles. Even Smith’s beliefs that Mormons were a covenanted people like the ancient Israelites, that America was the new Holy Land, that when Christ returned he would show up in Jackson County, Missouri—all of this was a more specific and literalist version of themes evoked by Puritans from John Winthrop to Jonathan Edwards.

Read the whole thing.

William Blake

From Colby Cosh in the National Post:

How two amateurs recovered the long-lost resting place of William Blake

If you look at any recent biography of the poet and engraver William Blake (1757-1827), you will learn that his mortal remains lie in the cemetery at Bunhill Fields, London, but that their exact location is unknown. Bunhill Fields, in the borough of Islington, is a remarkable piece of London history. “Bunhill” was originally “bone hill,” and that is just what it is — a very ancient burial-place, already built up slightly with the volume of human remains by the time of recorded history. A property owner made the site available for nondenominational interments and pauper burials in the 17th century; since most cemeteries observed religious exclusions, this made it a popular place of repose for the “nonconformist” dead of London.

Read the whole thing.

Medievalism

An interesting discovery by Tim Furnish in a local Starbucks:

The website of Young Templar Ministries gives no indication where it is physically headquartered save for the Atlanta “770” area code in the founder’s phone number, and that they’ll be having a rally at 6835 Victory Lane in Woodstock, Ga. They don’t claim to be associated with any Christian denomination, but their beliefs section (“The Holy Bible is the inspired Word of God… Jesus was the final and complete sacrifice for the sins of humanity. Salvation is Given, not earned. It is freely given through Grace because of faith in Jesus Christ,” etc.) suggests fundamentalism and evangelicalism.

This seems a little odd. Why should a medieval crusading order serve as inspiration for a twenty-first century American youth movement? Christian warfare (the website references “Young Soldiers” and “God’s Army”), even of the metaphorical kind, is not exactly hip these days. The Templars, especially, are supposed to be inspirational to the alt-right and thus even more dodgy. And let’s not forget how they ended, and consequently how inspirational they were to esoteric and/or dissident groups.

Or is that the point – that anyone persecuted by the medieval church can’t be all bad? Or (more ominously) is Christian warfare really coming back into fashion?

Catholics and Evangelicals

My friend Andrew Reeves makes his popular-press debut:

In 1960, Billy Graham visited Jerusalem.

Jerusalem is the city where Christians believe Jesus Christ was crucified, died, and rose again. As far back as the late third and early fourth centuries, Christians had held that a hill where the Roman Emperor Hadrian (who ruled from 117–138) had constructed a temple to Venus was the site of Christ’s crucifixion and death, and a nearby tomb, the site of his burial and resurrection. Shortly after Constantine legalized Christianity, the Church of the Holy Sepulcher was erected on that site. Although this church would endure several periods of damage and reconstruction, for the entirety of its history Christians throughout the world have regarded it as the site of Christ’s tomb.

Billy Graham did not visit the Holy Sepulcher. In the 19th century, the celebrated British General Charles “Chinese” Gordon carried out his own investigation of the areas in the environs of Jerusalem, believing that the Holy Sepulcher’s claim to be the site of the Easter event was incorrect. Through his investigation, he found what he believed was a hill that seemed closer to the New Testament’s description of Calvary and an adjacent tomb. This hill and tomb, generally known as Gordon’s Calvary and the Garden Tomb, have served as a site of pilgrimage for evangelicals who wish to avoid the Holy Sepulcher’s associations with Catholic Christianity. When the Reverend Billy Graham, the most prominent Baptist in recent history — and indeed the face of American evangelical Christianity through the 20th century — made a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, he went not to the Holy Sepulcher, but to Gordon’s Calvary and the Garden Tomb.

Read the whole thing (at Arc).

Hindu Nationalism

Another misuse of history. From Reuters (courtesy Stephen Bartlett). Choice excerpts:

By rewriting history, Hindu nationalists aim to assert their dominance over India

By RUPAM JAIN and TOM LASSETERFiled March 6, 2018, 11 a.m. GMT

NEW DELHI – During the first week of January last year, a group of Indian scholars gathered in a white bungalow on a leafy boulevard in central New Delhi. The focus of their discussion: how to rewrite the history of the nation.

The government of Hindu nationalist Prime Minister Narendra Modi had quietly appointed the committee of scholars about six months earlier. Details of its existence are reported here for the first time.

Minutes of the meeting, reviewed by Reuters, and interviews with committee members set out its aims: to use evidence such as archaeological finds and DNA to prove that today’s Hindus are directly descended from the land’s first inhabitants many thousands of years ago, and make the case that ancient Hindu scriptures are fact not myth.

Interviews with members of the 14-person committee and ministers in Modi’s government suggest the ambitions of Hindu nationalists extend beyond holding political power in this nation of 1.3 billion people – a kaleidoscope of religions. They want ultimately to shape the national identity to match their religious views, that India is a nation of and for Hindus.

In doing so, they are challenging a more multicultural narrative that has dominated since the time of British rule, that modern-day India is a tapestry born of migrations, invasions and conversions. That view is rooted in demographic fact. While the majority of Indians are Hindus, Muslims and people of other faiths account for some 240 million, or a fifth, of the populace…

According to the minutes of the history committee’s first meeting, Dikshit, the chairman, said it was “essential to establish a correlation” between ancient Hindu scriptures and evidence that Indian civilization stretches back many thousands of years. Doing so would help bolster both conclusions the committee wants to reach: that events described in Hindu texts are real, and today’s Hindus are descendants of those times.

The minutes and interviews with committee members lay out a comprehensive campaign to achieve this, including the dating of archaeological sites and DNA testing of human remains.

Culture Minister Sharma told Reuters he wants to establish that Hindu scriptures are factual accounts. Speaking of the Ramayana, the epic that follows the journey of a Hindu deity in human form, Sharma said: “I worship Ramayana and I think it is a historical document. People who think it is fiction are absolutely wrong.” The epic tells how the god Rama rescues his wife from a demon king. It still informs many Indians’ sense of gender roles and duty.

Sharma said it was a priority to prove through archaeological research the existence of a mystical river, the Saraswati, that is mentioned in another ancient scripture, the Vedas. Other projects include examining artifacts from locations in scriptures, mapping the dates of astrological events mentioned in these texts and excavating the sites of battles in another epic, the Mahabharata, according to Sharma and minutes of the committee’s meeting.

In much the same way that some Christians point to evidence of an ancient flood substantiating the Biblical tale of Noah and his ark, if the settings and features of the ancient scriptures in India can be verified, the thinking goes, then the stories are true. “If the Koran and Bible are considered as part of history, then what is the problem in accepting our Hindu religious texts as the history of India?” said Sharma.

Modi did not order the committee’s creation – it was instigated by Sharma, government documents show – but its mission is in keeping with his outlook. During the 2014 inauguration of a hospital in Mumbai, Modi pointed to the scientific achievements documented by ancient religious texts and spoke of Ganesha, a Hindu deity with an elephant’s head: “We worship Lord Ganesha, and maybe there was a plastic surgeon at that time who kept the head of an elephant on the torso of a human. There are many areas where our ancestors made large contributions.” Modi did not respond to a request from Reuters that he expand on this remark.

This is nuts! I repeat my query: Is it not possible to value your country, and the truth, at the same time? Bartlett told me of another forum of this dispute, in which Hindu nationalists triumphantly claimed that a study of mitochondrial DNA proved that “the Aryan invasions never happened!” Unfortunately for them, this conclusion was overturned pretty quickly, since mDNA is passed down from mothers – but not by Y chromosome DNA, which marks for maleness. A study of that suggests, indeed, that (male) warriors arrived and procreated with local women.

My Hanson and Curtis world history text has an inset box dealing with a similar issue (page 69):

Whose History of Hinduism is Correct?

Historians of religion often have a different understanding of a given religions tradition than do its adherents. Studying documents and art objects from specific periods, historians see all religions as changing over time, and they often have evidence revealing that different groups – the illiterate and literate, men and women, rich and poor – understand the teaching of a religion in divergent ways. In contrast, believers sometimes maintain that since their own understanding of a religions tradition has been true since the founding of the religion, it is the only correct view. Pluralists see Hinduism as an evolving, changing set of beliefs, while the centralists lean toward the view that the Vedas have always been the primary texts of Hinduism, which they believe existed since time immemorial.

These two views have collided head-on in India. In 2010, Penguin Press published a book entitled The Hindus: An Alternative History, by a professor of religion at the University of Chicago, Wendy Doniger. The book offers a pluralist perspective, presenting materials in languages other than Sanskrit, the language of India’s high tradition, to highlight the experiences of women and untouchables. Because Hindus debate certain core beliefs of Hinduism, such as vegetarianism, nonviolence, and the caste system, Doniger argues that there is no single, correct teaching, or orthodoxy.

In 2011 a small Hindu group, called Shiksha Bachao Andolan (Save Education Movement), led by a retired school principal, filed a civil claim against Penguin in Indian courts. “The book is in bad taste right from the beginning,” the principal told BBC. “If you see the front page, the picture there is also objectionable since it portrays a deity in vulgar pose.” The book cover features a painting of the blue-skinned deity Krishna riding on a horse made up of multiple bare breasted women.

Choosing to settle out of court, in February 2013, Penguin India recalled all remaining copies of the book and promised to destroy them….

Source.

Sigh… I wish publishers would not be so willing to succumb to the heckler’s veto (cf. Yale UP’s decision to publish a book about the Danish Mohammad cartoons, without actually publishing the cartoons).