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April is poetry month! Poetry allows us to say afresh things which need to be said (but which are not being heard properly because of popular conventions or dark political malfeasance).  Yet once these truths are framed in sacred beautiful language and hung up in the great library of human endeavor, they take on an enduring character which the despots, brutes, and vulgarians of the past can no longer suppress (and which the despots, brutes, and vulgarians of the present do not understand).

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Portrait of Swinburne (Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 1861) Watercolor, chalk, pencil on paper

For example, here is a short poem by Alernon Charles Swinburne, a sort of half-forgotten poet who was so exceedingly popular during the Victorian era that his work was set aside during the subsequent anti-Victorian backlash (which seems like a pity, since his poetry is lyrical and beautiful…and has a haunting & desolate sadness beneath all of its rich, fulsome opulence).

Swinburne was fascinated by Christianity and by the great Christian art and literature of antiquity and the Middle Ages.  Yet a comprehensive reading of his poems makes it fairly clear that he himself was not devout.  He harbored particular reservations about the afterlife and his sophisticated contemporaries saw him as a sort of “poet laureate of atheism.”  Despite this (or…because of it?) Swinburne wrote a poem about Christian persecution as anathema to Jesus.  The poem was not about persecution of Christians, but persecution by Christians.  Here it is:

On the Russian Persecution of the Jews

by Algernon Charles Swinburne

O SON of man, by lying tongues adored,
By slaughterous hands of slaves with feet red-shod
in carnage deep as ever Christian trod
Profaned with prayer and sacrifice abhorred
And incense from the trembling tyrant’s horde,
Brute worshipers or wielders of the rod,
Most murderous even that ever called thee Lord;
Face loved of little children long ago,
Head hated of the priests and rulers then,
If thou see this, or hear these hounds of thine,
Run ravening as the Gadarene swine,
Say, was not this thy Passion, to foreknow
In death’s worst hour the works of Christian men?

Written in 1882, the poem is addressed to the “Son of Man,” which is Christ’s appellation in the gospels.  Swinburne describes the savagery of contemporary Christians and poignantly asks whether the cruelty of Jesus’ followers towards Jews, foreigners, and outsiders would hurt Christ more than the physical agony of the passion.  Since the apotheosis of compassion was the exact point of Christ’s ministry and his death, the answer is clearly a resounding yes. However, the poet (and, implicitly, his sophisticated reader) both recognize that contemporary Christians often overlook the meaning of Christ’s words and actions in their zeal to attain a piece of some imaginary paradise.

The poem is aimed directly at Russian Orthodox Christians, who were indeed guilty of terrible pogroms against the great Jewish communities within the Pale of Settlement. Since Russia was the hated national adversary of late Victorian England, the message would be roundly appreciated by Swinburne’s readers. Yet the poet perhaps casts a wider net upon the lord’s flock than it initially seems. The poem’s title aside, these lying tongues, slaughterous hands, and profane precants could almost be found anywhere in Christendom.  Perhaps the eagerness of the reader to attribute such sins to other Christians is its own clue. Did not Christ ask his followers “Or how wilt thou say to thy brother, Let me pull out the mote out of thine eye; and, behold, a beam is in thine own eye?”

And like all great poetry, the message is hardly trapped within its time.  A clear-sighted observer might be able to look at any Christian period or any puffed-up sanctimoniously “Christian” nation and find terrible cruelty to Jews and foreigners enacted by zealots incapable of grasping the fundamental message of the gospels.  Such acts could even be encouraged by self-interested czars who not-very-convincingly pretend to be Christian!  Great art lives in timeless modernity after all.

At any rate, I will leave you, dear reader, to contemplate Swinburne’s real meaning on your own (maybe after you peruse the news of the day).  Oh, also the Gadarene swine were the herd of pigs which Christ cast the demons into as recounted in Matthew 8:28-34. It is worth remembering that the Gadarenes begged Jesus to leave after the incident…as though they preferred money and security to the actual Son of God! Shocking!

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Ferrebeekeeper recounts a lot of mythological stories and religious tales–using almost the same voice as we use to tell non-fictional stories.  However, it is critical to remember that such folklore and mythology is not true…at least not in the same way as history or science are real (and even those reality-based disciplines are shot through with ambiguity and factual inadequacy: truth is a very lofty ideal indeed!).  Instead religious tales tell a complicated moral or ontological truth about our species by means of symbolism.  How we interpret this symbolism is all-Important.

I had a classics professor in college who gave us a reading about the Punic War from Livy.  Livy (who himself lived in politically fraught times) prudently cited the failure to properly observe the state religion as one of the reasons the Romans lost a huge Punic War battle (or as Livy stated it: the Romans failed to sacrifice enough to the gods of Olympus).  On the midterm, the professor asked why the Romans lost the battle and many students dutifully regurgitated Livy’s exact answer in their little blue books.  “I was surprised to find so many pantheists in this class!” said the professor as he handed back the books and explained why readers need to think carefully about what they are reading (and also why so many students did not have the grades they expected).

It might seem like I am writing about this subject because of dissatisfaction with some aspect of contemporary religious sentiment. For example, based on their actions and pronouncements, many contemporary Christians seem to believe that the central message of Christianity is that they (fundamentalist Christians) are always right about everything and God will take them to heaven to live in happy bliss when they die (even as he casts all of the people they personally dislike (and pretty much everyone else) into eternal hellfire).  Gods are a metaphor for the self—unless you happen to be devout; in which case your god is an actual magical entity who cares about you personally but mostly despises everyone else.

Ahem, anyway…Instead of talking about whether evangelical Christians fail to understand Christ’s message of kindness and giving, I wanted to draw people’s attention back to a Greco-Roman story we told here a while ago—the story of Asclepius, god of healing.  Asclepius was the son of the beautiful and terrible god Apollo (whose myths always fascinate and horrify me).  According to the myth, Asclepius mastered healing to a profound degree previously unknown to mortalkind.  Through study and devotion, he obtained the ability to alleviate all of people’s suffering, anguish, and illness.  His art was so profound that he could even stop death itself.  Unfortunately, Asclepius became so great as a healer that he lost sight of the healing itself.  He began to think of himself as one of the gods.  He was originally drawn to medicine out of sympathetic pity and concern for the sufferings or misfortunes of others.  But success changed him and he began to only heal those who gave him enormous amounts of gold.  Because of this Zeus hurled a thunderbolt at him.  Asclepius was incinerated utterly. His quasi-divine healing prowess vanished from the earth because of his hubris and people were thrown back into lives of suffering and death.

Now here is my point.  I suppose if we had a devout pantheist here they would say “Zeus is all powerful and Asclepius offended him by trying to imitate that power!  Hubris will always be punished. All hail Zeus!”  Since the pantheists are pretty much gone though (except maybe in my history class), we can look at the story on its own.  Asclepius was a human, and he his mastery of healing represents humankind’s surprising ability to master this subject to an enormous degree.  But Asclepius was arrogant and selfish.  He started to misuse his healing arts for profit. When he stopped caring about being a physician first and began to lust for gold and power instead of wisdom, his healing art was lost and everyone suffered.  The story has a patina of magic, but it is a metaphor about real things. Indeed, it should seem intimately familiar to any American who has been forced to contend with our for-profit healthcare system (even before the contemporary American medical industry mixed up the staff of Asclepius with Hermes’ rod of commerce). Seem from that vantage, the story of how Asclepius was destroyed when he forgot his true purpose doesn’t just sound like an ancient Greek myth about hubris.  It sounds like a rebuke to contemporary healthcare companies which are so stingy, cruel, and greedy that they are shortening people’s lives.  Worrying about gold instead of research and healing didn’t work out so great for the greatest physician.  Perhaps it is a mistake in contemporary medicine as well.

Of course, a careful reader might also ask whether I was being completely honest when I said that this post has nothing to do with Christianity in contemporary America.  This particular myth about somebody who incurs a terrible all-consuming price for losing their compassion is Greek—but the moral seems… familiar. A great rabbi once asked a seemingly hypothetical question “For what shall it profit a man, if he gain the whole world, and suffer the loss of his soul?” I don’t believe in souls as real things.  They are symbolic of what is eternal and all-important in our little lives as pieces of the great gestalt of human life.  Perhaps the question could be interpreted as, “what if you lose the most important aspect of yourself by being greedy and power-hungry?”  The story of Asclepius provides a ready answer to that question.  Perhaps the New Testament has similar answers, which people are overlooking.  Physicians need not lose their healing.  Christians need not abandon what is truly divine within Jesus’s words.  Perhaps the Romans need not even lose the great battle, but we are all going to have to focus a bit harder on the complicated symbolic aspect of the text.

2000_40_1---Number-forty_web

Since I am not much of a mathematician, I don’t generally write about numbers. I am afraid that if I do so, there will be a loud band and a flash and one of my disgruntled arithmetic teachers from secondary school will appear with a red pen to berate me (also numbers sort of squirm around like little spiders on the page in a deeply unsettling way). Nevertheless, today, for entirely obscure reasons, I thought I might dedicate a post to the natural number forty (40), a number which seemingly has great spiritual significance within the three Abrahamic faiths.

"No, we are not stopping for directions!"

“No, we are not stopping for directions!”

In the Old Testament forty crops up again and again. The flood which rained out the sinful people off the world (which Noah escaped via zoological ark) lasted forty days and forty nights. Not only did Moses and the Hebrew people live in the Sinai desert for forty years, but most famous Israelite kings also had forty year reigns (examples include Eli (1 Samuel 4:18), Saul (Acts 13:21), David (2 Samuel 5:4), and Solomon (1 Kings 11:42)). The giant Goliath challenged the Israelites two times a day for forty days before they finally found a champion to defeat him.

The principal figures o Christianity with 40 holy virgins

The principal figures o Christianity with 40 holy virgins

Christ was a Jew and Christianity kept up the fascination with forty. Jesus fasted for forty days and night in the desert before he was tempted by the devil. When he returned from death, he lingered for forty days in the world before ascending bodily to heaven and the great beyond. Lent lasts for forty days before Easter.

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Islam has even more references to forty (although unfortunately I am not nearly as familiar with Muslim traditions or theology). Mohammed was forty years old when he received his divine revelations. The evil false prophet Al-Masih ad-Dajjal roams (or will roam) the world for 40 day (40 year?) increments. The mourning period for devout Moslems is forty days. Perhaps most famously, righteous men will be rewarded in the afterlie with forty houri—beautiful black-eyed virgins who cater to every whim: although this tradition is riddled with textual difficulties—the number may be seventy-two instead of forty and houri may actually be a mistranslation or raisins. These are important distinctions and it would be good to sort them out, but, sadly, faith does not easily trade in ironclad certainties…

Seriously? Forty raisins?

Seriously? Forty raisins?

So what is behind this obsession with forty? Is there some divine numerological secret which underlies the three great Monotheistic religions? Do the Pentateuch, the Bible, and the Koran all hint at profound number magic which would put endless power in our hands? Well, actually, scholars suggest that forty was such a large number that it just meant “a whole bunch” to the original authors Genesis. Additionally a forty year period was reckoned to be the Subsequent religious writers seemingly used the number to lend ancient gravitas to their own texts. Of course numbers sometimes confuse me (as does monotheism), so maybe I am missing something here. I anyone has a better idea, I am all ears.

The Main Room of the Morgan Library in Manhattan

The Main Room of the Morgan Library in Manhattan

Today I visited the Morgan Library which was created to house the extensive collection of the finance titan J.P. Morgan. The building was extraordinary (it was originally created to house the one-of-a-kind J.P. Morgan) and the collection even more so. There were Mozart scores written by the hand of the master, a Gutenberg bible, and original copies (or manuscripts) of the most important books of the ages. Among these treasures of human thought the library also had a small collection of jewelry and valuables from the world of classical antiquity. I noticed these cicada brooches among the collection and thought to share them with you.

Four Cicada Brooches from the Eastern Germanic Goths (ca. 380 AD to 600 AD) silver, copper, and iron

Four Cicada Brooches from the Eastern Germanic Goths (ca. 380 AD to 600 AD) silver, copper, and iron

The brooches were made by Germanic Goths living along the Danube and on the shores of the Black Sea during the fifth and sixth centuries AD. The cicada shape may have been an allusion to the rebirth of the soul (for the Goths were early converts to Christianity—albeit Arian Christianity). The Goths of this time were pushed from their original homelands by the great hordes of Attila and they were everywhere on the borders of the Roman world. The Goths themselves seem to have even thought of themselves as Romans themselves, although the authorities in Constantinople sometimes saw it differently and periodically embarked on programs or reconquest.

The Skull and Crown of Erik IX of Sweden

The Skull and Crown of Erik IX of Sweden

Today we have an extremely special treat to counteract the treacle of yesterday’s fluffy movie review: it’s the skull of a Viking king complete with a period crown! Hooray! The skull is what remains of King Erik IX who ruled Sweden from 1156 until 1160 when a political misunderstanding resulted in his head violently flying off his body (admittedly with some help from a large man with an axe). Well, at least that is what we think happened…no historical records have survived from Erik’s reign so all we have are myths, legends, and archaeological evidence (like this bitchin’ skull and crown).

The skull and crown from a different angle

The skull and crown from a different angle

Like many Swedish royals, Erik IX seems to have hailed from Götaland (which is to say he was a Geat)! Erik claimed the throne in 1150 while Sverker the Elder was still king and the two men bitterly contested the throne. In 1156 some mysterious party ordered the murder of Sverker on Christmas day and thereafter Erik was the uncontested king until he himself was murdered while attending mass at Uppsala. Uppsala had long been the center of political and spiritual life in Sweden and it was once the site of a huge temple to the old gods (which stood surrounded by sacrificed human beings and the barrows of ancient kings), however in Erik’s era Christians were taking over and there was already a church at Uppsala in 1160.

The cathedral at Uppsala today

The cathedral at Uppsala today

A fair amount of whitewash seems to have been applied to Erik by Christians who were still in the process expunging the ancient pagan faith from Scandinavia. Additionally his son Knud was fighting for the throne with the Sverkers and shamelessly mixed together facts and legends about Erik to consolidate his position. Nevertheless, it seems fairly certain that Erik IX formalized Swedish law and led an invasion/crusade against the pagan Finns. Today Erik IX is known as Eric the Lawgiver, Erik the Saint, and Eric the Holy. His severed head is on the coat of arms of Stockholm.

 

The Coat of Arms of Stockholm

The Coat of Arms of Stockholm

Although Erik was never formally recognized as a saint by the Catholic church, his skull and crown have long been held in Uppsala cathedral. Historians and archaeologists opened the casket in April of 2014, and the contents will go on public display in June. The crown of Erik is made of gilded copper inset with semi-precious jewels.

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Snake-handling

Snake week continues with a dramatic return to my native Appalachia.  Up in the mountains, devout Christianity has taken on a great many colorful forms, but arguably none are quite as exciting as the rites celebrated by the Pentecostal Snake-handlers.  Snake-handling in Appalachia is said to have a long history rooted in 19th century revivals and tent-show evangelism, but its documented history starts with an illiterate but charismatic Pentecostal minister named George Went Hensley.  Around 1910 Hensley had a religious revelation based on two specific New Testament Bible verses.  Couched in the flinty vaguely apocalyptic language of the Gospels, the two verses which obsessed Hensley read as follows:

And these signs shall follow them that believe; In my name shall they cast out devils; they shall speak with new tongues;They shall take up serpents; and if they drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them; they shall lay hands on the sick, and they shall recover.  Mark 16: 17-18

And he said unto them, I beheld Satan as lightning fall from heaven. Behold, I give unto you power to tread on serpents and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy: and nothing shall by any means hurt you. (Luke 10: 18-19)

While many believers might chose to understand these lines as a general affirmation of Christ’s devotion to his flock, Hensley was very much a literalist (and a showman).  Believing that the New Testament commanded the faithful to handle venomous snakes, he set about obtaining a number of poisonous snakes and incorporating them into his ministry.  The practice quickly spread along the spine of the mountains and beyond.  Even today the Church of God with Signs Following (aka the snake handlers) numbers believers in the thousands.

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A service at the Church of God with Signs Following includes standard Pentecostal practices such as faith healing,  testimony of miracles, and speaking in tongues (along with much boisterous jumping and testifying), however what sets the ceremony apart are the live poisonous snakes which are located in a special area behind the alter located at the front of the church.  Throughout the service, worshipers can come forward and pick up the serpents and even let the snakes crawl over their bodies.  Native pit vipers such as copperheads, timber rattlers, and water moccasins are most commonly used in the ceremonies but exotic poisonous snakes like cobras are sometimes included.   The snakes act as a proxy for devils and demons.  Handling the reptiles is believed to demonstrate power over these underworld forces.  If a congregant is bitten (which has happened often), it is usually regarded as an individual or group failure of faith.  Upon being bitten devout snake-handlers generally refuse treatment, regarding this as part of their sacrament.

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Not only do snake handlers handle snakes they also sometimes drink strychnine to prove their devotion. Additionally (although less alarmingly) they adhere to a conservative dress code of ankle-length dresses, long hair, and no make-up for women, and short hair and oxford shirts for men.  Tobacco and alcohol are regarded as sinful.

Snake handling has a long and twisty relationship with state laws.  In Georgia, in 1941, state legislators passed a bill which made Pentecostal snake handling into a felony and mandated the death penalty for participants, however the law was so extreme that juries refused to enforce it and it was eventually repealed.  A number of states still have old laws clearly designed to curtail the practice of the faith (often these were instituted after particularly controversial deaths, particularly those of children).

George Went Hensley

George Went Hensley

The founder of snake handling, George Went Hensley, also had a twisty serpentine course through life.  After founding and popularizing the church during the World War I era, he strayed somewhat from the life of a minister.  During the 20’s he had substantial problems in his home life caused by drinking and moonshining.  After being arrested for the latter, Hensley was sentenced to work on a chain gang but he beguiled the guards into other duties with his likability and, on an errand to fetch water, he escaped and fled from Tennessee.   He worked various occupations including miner, moonshiner, and faith healer and married various women before returning to his ministry in the mid-thirties.   During the next decades, Hensley led a vivid life involving a multi-state ministry (which was the subject of a miniature media circus), various drunken fits and conflicts, multiple marriages, and lots of poisonous snakes.  The odds caught up to him in Altha, Florida in 1955 when he was bitten on the wrist by a venomous snake which he had removed from a lard can and rubbed on his face.  After becoming visibly ill from the bite, he refused treatment (and is said to have rebuked his congregation for their lack of faith) before dying of snakebite.  When he died he had been married 4 times and fathered 13 known children. He also had claimed to have been bitten over 400 times by various snakes.

Contemporary Snake-Handlers (photo by Lauren Pond for the Wall Street Journal)

Contemporary Snake-Handlers (photo by Lauren Pond for the Wall Street Journal)

Hensley always asserted that he was not the father of snake-handling, however he certainly popularized the movement.  Even today, Christians of a certain mindset can prove their faith by harassing toxic reptiles (although the religion’s legality is disputed in many states where it is practiced).

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