Wednesday, September 28, 2016


Martin Marty

Two websites send me regular bulletins about religion.  One is “Sightings” which is sent out from the U of Chicago Div School under the auspices of Martin Marty, a professor of mine who is now retired and who — through decades — has been a favorite “explainer” for the media.  His speciality is the history of American religion.  He does include Native Americans but not with any particular expertise.  YouTube includes him.  He’s easy to underestimate with his bow tie, but he’s one of the most reasonable and compassionate people I’ve ever known.  Not a usual combination, esp in the field of religion.

Diane Winston

The other one is called .”Religion Dispatches” and is from the Knight Chair in Media and Religion at the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism.  Diane Winston is publisher of Religion Dispatches, a daily online magazine on religion, politics and culture, and she is on the executive board of the International Society for Media, Religion and Culture.  She’s more eclectic than Marty, but then, of course, she’s on the West Coast (after an elite East Coast education).  She covers Hollywood, sexuality and AIDS and lectures by her are on YouTube.

Since religion as the public understands it is mostly a matter of institutions with denominations (names), most of what these two sources report is highly political and that’s intensely true of this election.  The “short” version is that Catholics (esp. Hispanics) and Christian people of color are dumping Trump down, down and down.  But white evangelicals are solid high-per-cent Trump fans.  These are older men.  No one is surprised, but there’s a bit of shock about how steep the drop of the others is and how stubborn those white geezers have remained, though it’s not hard to understand why.  What everyone is wondering (probably including them) is how much power they still have.

Both Marty and Winston take advantage of being academic by pulling in young writers and young opinions.  Everyone has known the pews are emptying, but — once more — the numbers are shocking.   For particulars, try:   The world is tipping on an axis that is no longer Christian.  But don’t panic.  This is not the first time.

One could argue that the Christian and specifically Catholic way of controlling people through the use of stigma has backfired because the enforcers have not practiced what they preach.  People who were compliant and conscientious have been revolted by priests’ abuse of children and their rejection of people who are nontypical in their desires and practices.  (Celibacy strikes some people as perverse.)  It is clear that the invention of birth control has been such a deep change in human choices that it has destabilized the concept of “family.”  The need to make money has destroyed the dependable support children must have.  The loss of parental nurturing is as common among middle class Americans as it is among Third World displaced people.  That’s without considering drugs with their increasingly public destruction.

Christian life has been based on a group of papers called “testaments” written by important old men for a rural population.  The stories are often ag-based: vineyards, fishing, herding sheep, trekking with camels.  The ones that are most useful now are often about sex or power.  Or apocalypse.  Christian community is too often a matter of circling the wagons into a improvised fort and then controlling who can enter or leave by using stigma and blame.  (Jesus sighs.)

The fancy thinkers call this “containers”, social or categorical.  We’ve got a million little boundaries from clothes fashion to jargon to Ph.D’s.  And a growing impatience with such markers, though people in-the-know are still interested enough to read those complicated Vanity Fair charts of who’s in and who’s out.  A recent article claims that literacy on the planet is at 85% of the human beings.  I doubt that and it didn’t say literacy at what level: Tolstoy or stop signs?  

Frankopan’s “The Silk Road” begins history with the invention of writing itself a few thousand years earlier than the major modern institutions began to organize and write Torah, Bible, Koran, and the major Eastern books.  Thanks to sophisticated computer-based methods we can now find, restore, translate and fit into the world of the time all the found bits when those documents were  being written.  Now we can reach back much earlier.  

Instead of seeing time as beginning with Christianity, we can think about the roots of the preceding Judaism and even unnamed systems before that, and we can see the forces that caused Islam to arise from the Judeo-Christian world and then — as the “known world” became roads far to the east, everything changed.  Maybe more accurately, exploded.  A flood of new ideas.

I love Frankopan’s story about the Caliph who felt pressed to choose one of these big systems to be his official state religion.  A learned man, he summoned three representatives -- one for each of the three systems based on monotheism and descended from Moses -- to make a case.  At the time they were not militarily pitched against each other as they often can be now.  In the end the Caliph chose Judaism and all three accepted the decision.  It is a story that seems like a fantasy, but it is documented.

The Millennium Tower

In San Francisco one of the marker buildings, the Millennium Tower, is sinking and tilting.  The cause is partly failure to build the foundation down to bedrock; partly using heavy concrete instead of lighter steel (which is what made skyscrapers possible in the first place); and partly by a huge transit hub foundation hole built close enough to undermine.  There are Biblical stories about such things — lots of sermon material for those who still indulge in that, and lots of lawsuits for those whose professions are based on argument.  (Engineers weep.  Building plans examiners laugh cynically.  Surely they predicted this!)  If this tower falls, will it kill as many people as the World Trade Towers? 

People are leaving the churches because that’s not where the action is.  Nor is it in the court rooms.  It’s in the streets.  They are not Silk Roads, but the dynamics are the same.  The old Towers are sinking and tilting.  People can thrive only if there is enough wealth to go around.  The great tragedy of our age is that there IS enough wealth, but it keeps being intercepted and siphoned off by legal and illegal means.  Like elections.  Or local wars.  Or drugs.  Or bribes to building permit plans examiners.

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