Religious Literacy, Ted Cruz, and Being Booed Off Stage

1381498024000-tedcruz-vaRealizing every liberal democrat’s dream, Ted Cruz was recently booed off stage speaking at a ritzy gala in DC.

On September 10th, 2014, one day before the 13th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks, Ted Cruz, a Republican Senator from Texas and presidential hopeful, stood before a crowd of Middle Eastern Christians to offer some remarks on the persecution of Christians at the hands of the terrorist group ISIS.

Apparently, he was unprepared for a strong backlash when he called for the unilateral support of the Israeli government and its policies. The crowd erupted into two factions, with a chorus of boos attempting to drown out the smattered applause at his statement: “Those who hate Israel hate America.”

News outlets and blogs have already roundly criticized Cruz for his alleged insensitivity and inflammatory remarks, so I don’t want to heap more vitriol upon the guy. However, I do want to call attention to what I see as a missed opportunity for religious empathy.

As I said in my last post, our culture, peer group, and privilege shapes our religious experience. This means that two Christians, despite holding to ostensibly similar doctrine and practice, can have vastly different opinions on key issues that we take for granted.

Ted Cruz assumed his Christian worldview as normative. As a white American Evangelical, he is accustomed to fellow white American Evangelicals agreeing with him on the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. Afterall, most Americans in this particular demographic strongly support the Israeli government.

However, he made a fundamental attribution error when he equated his own worldview with all Christians and assumed he was speaking to a sympathetic audience simply because they were all Christians.

This exemplifies the vital importance of literacy in your own religion. Simple knowledge about your own religion will go far in fostering dialogue and empathy.

Indeed, the most difficult type of religious dialogue is between closely related traditions. As the “proximate Other,” our narcissism leads us to flog the Other over small differences rather than enjoy the similarity. This is why you see such vitriolic arguments between the Evangelical Left and Right in the blogosphere rather than Evangelicals debating Hindus.

On the spectrum of religious traditions, Cruz’s tradition did not differ drastically from his audience’s in terms of doctrine; yet, he allowed a political difference to destabilize an opportunity for dialogue. Perhaps if he reflected on the life experience of a Middle Eastern Christian, even just for a moment, something edifying would have come from his speech rather than a flurry of gleeful rebuttals from the pundits.

Staring into the Abyss (Why I Study Ancient Christian Magic Pt. 2)


Ancient sarcophagi in downtown Athens.

This is my second post in a 3 part series. See “Part I” here

I’m the first to admit that I started researching magical ritual in Late Antiquity because it was weird. For an undergraduate who had primarily subsisted on a sanitized diet of Homer, Plato, and Cicero, I was equally shocked and excited to discover that the ancients deployed curse spells calling for a victim’s utter destruction and fashioned amulets to ward off sexual advances from demons. Not only did these texts controvert my romantic view of antiquity, but they were bizarre and exciting—perfect for a student who struggled to feign interest in dense philosophical or theological texts (I’m looking at you Plotinus).

But as I continued in my studies, the novelty faded, replaced by the realization that I had taken a morbid fascination in the suffering of long-dead men and women. Most ancient spells aim to ameliorate physical ailments, loneliness, or poverty, and although these strategies strike us as outlandish, the underlying motivations are all too familiar. Indeed, death and disease were more readily visible to the ancients, but try as we might to mitigate and manage them in the present, we still stare into the same abyss.  

Our own mortality resonates with this sort of research. Magic is a deeply existential activity motivated by, in the words of scholar Catherine Bell, a necessity of doing something rather than nothing. In magical ritual, we engage the world with our own body, emotions, and words in an effort to regain agency in a fragmented and uncertain reality—not out of some hubristic sense of mastery over the world but precisely because we recognize that the universe cannot be compelled.

Magical ritual evokes a hypothetical reality “as it should be” rather than the stark, brutal reality “as it is.” This is not to imply that magic is some illusory mentality known only to “primitive” people. Indeed, the gap between ancient irrationality and our modern sensibility disappears when we consider that all humans seek any strategy to gain mastery over their material realities. “Mortality” embodies this struggle because it is ultimately awareness of our eventual demise that spurs us so strongly to augment our own agency.

This is why I have continued researching ancient magic…to empathize with the ancients through our shared existential condition and to learn something about ourselves in the process. Though we may scoff at the obvious inefficacy of ancient magic, we ironically battle the same demons with the equally inefficacious weapons of wealth, sex, or power.

Why I Study Ancient Christian Magic (and so should you) Pt. 1 of 3

A drawing of an angel, possibly Gabriel, from a Gnostic Christian magical papyrus.

A drawing of an angel, possibly Gabriel, from a Gnostic Christian magical papyrus.

I study ancient Christian magic. No, not [simply] because I aspire to be Harry Potter…but the reasons are as complicated as they are personal, and it is about time that I address them.

Some may think I derive perverse glee in exposing the inconsistencies in ancient Christians’ piety—that somehow their reliance on love spells, Jesus amulets, and curse tablets invalidates their legitimacy as moral actors in history. “Why,” the critic may ask, “would Christians—whose own religion denounces magic—rely on bizarre, disgusting, and often shamefully misogynistic strategies to navigate their daily lives?”

As important as it is to recognize how ancient and modern Christians differ, castigating the ancients smacks of desperate axe-grinding from a recovering fundamentalist and not serious scholarship. Not only is it unproductive but it also breaks a cardinal rule of historians: foisting modern morality onto ancient sensibilities. As the scholar Robert Orsi says, “Religious studies is not a moralizing discipline.” We refrain from condoning, defending, or passing judgment on our subjects of study in favor of exploring how religion functions in specific geographical and chronological contexts.

This, however, does not relegate religious studies to mere “knowledge production.” In my own work, I strive to highlight the relevancy of research even as arcane as “ancient Christian magic”—how, through studying the rituals and habits of  ancient Christians, we can promote empathy, exercise humility, and tear down walls of misunderstanding in the present.

My first reason for studying ancient Christian magic is that it explores the 99% of Antiquity.

“Church history” brings to mind big names like Ignatius, Tertullian, John Chrysostom, Augustine, and Jerome. Introductory classes often focus on major events like Constantine’s victory at the Milvian bridge or social changes like the rise of monasticism. However, although the Church fathers, bishops, monks, and emperors constitute the bulk of research in my field, they ironically reflect the vast minority of the ancient Christian population—the 1%, as it were.

The major heroes of ancient Christianity were, in general, wealthy politicians, statesmen (men…not women), lawyers, and scholars. Their own prestige afforded a certain level of fame to their writings even during their life time, enabling them to be copied again and again to our present age. Archaeology likewise favors the 1% as massive basilicas tend to survive 15 centuries far better than mud-brick houses in the Mediterranean countryside.

This is not because of any latent bias in academia…this simply is the nature of our evidence in a field so far removed from its subject. However, focusing on the 1% of ancient Christianity skews our understanding of how Christians thought, worshipped, and related to each other and the divine in antiquity.

It is difficult to describe just how privileged characters like Augustine and Ambrose were. Living in villas fit for kings, they had the time to wax eloquent on the nature of the Trinity that others spent on subsistence farming. Life for the masses was, in the words of Thomas Hobbes, “poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” Barely 15-20% of the population had any level of literacy. Archaeology moreover reveals to us a world characterized by high birth mortality rate, rampant parasites, and a near-complete lack of public health initiatives.

It is within this world we must imagine early Christian magic. Studying magic, more than any theological text, brings us face to face with the average ancient Christian and how they practiced their faith “on the ground.”

When I focus my camera on an apotropaic menorah inscribed on the threshold of an ancient house in Priene, the power that the symbol held for the original homeowner is almost palpable. When I study curse tablets found in situ, I encounter the angst and anxiety of the last person who had touched the object.

Here there is immediacy to ancient ritual far removed from the rarefied rhetoric of Paul or Pausanias. 

In short, everyone practiced magic in antiquity….not everyone (in fact, very few) wrote sweeping theological tracts or eloquent sermons. Focusing on the former is my way of exploring the nature of ancient Christianity, a field so often dominated by “big name/big event” histories.


How Did Early Christians View Noah’s Ark?

Russell Crowe as Noah in Darren Aranofsky's biblical epicAlthough Darren Aronofsky’s Noah hasn’t even hit theaters yet, some from among its target audience are already flogging it as “unbiblical” and “bizarre.” The backlash—which includes the film’s censorship in Qatar, Bahrain, and the UAE—has prompted Paramount Studios to appease religious groups with the following disclaimer in all promotional material:

“The film is inspired by the story of Noah. While artistic license has been taken, we believe that this film is true to the essence, values and integrity of a story that is a cornerstone of faith for millions of people worldwide. The biblical story of Noah can be found in the book of Genesis.”

Though I’m not sure why we are expending so much righteous indignation on a film that will likely be as forgettable as it is mediocre, I am excited to see this “artistic license” in action. Aronofsky most obviously deviates from the biblical story by including the Watchers—angels who, according to the Book of Enoch, descended to earth to wed human women. This account embellishes the strange story in Genesis 6 in which these angel/human couplings produced giant offspring called the Nephilim. But where Genesis only makes vague allusions, Enoch goes into great detail, describing the Nephilim as 300-cubit (~135 meters) tall giants who decimate the earth’s resources and instigate God’s retributive Flood.

Aronofsky probably won’t include all of these details from 1 Enoch, but by incorporating some apocryphal material, he ironically is exercising the same creative liberty that early Christians did when thinking about Noah’s Flood. Many early Christians, including some prominent figures like Irenaeus, Tertullian, and Clement of Alexandria, considered 1 Enoch to be authoritative Scripture. Other Christian sects like the Sethian Gnostics composed their own accounts which bear little resemblance to Genesis.

Many early Christian interpretations focus on the Ark itself, but even though Genesis provides its exact dimensions, it never seems to appear in the same way.

Noah's Ark in Catacombs1. A box

Some early Christians conceptualized Noah’s Ark as a square box. In the Catacombs of Marcellinus and Peter, a massive 2nd-3rd century funeral complex located to the south-east of Rome, archaeologists discovered a wall fresco depicting Noah sitting in his ark. The ark is comically stylized as a little lidless box, while the dove that Noah released to search for dry land can be seen flying back to his outstretched hands. A similar depiction appears on a marble sarcophagus dated to about 260-300 CE. The sarcophagus, which probably was commissioned by a wealthy Christian client, depicts Noah sitting in a little box with the dove fetching him a piece of an olive tree.

2. A Giant Pyramid

In his apologetic text Contra Celsum, the 3rd century church father Origen battles Celsus over the Ark’s existence and exact dimensions. Using a similar line of argument that modern critics employ, Celsus derides Noah’s flood as a children’s story and points out that the Ark couldn’t have possibly been large enough to hold 2 of every kind of animal. Origen counters by implying that the Ark was likely larger than what the biblical text stipulates. He expands these views in his Homilies on Genesis, in which he suggests that Moses, who was purportedly educated in Egypt, recorded the cubits in the larger Egyptian cubit when composing Genesis. Therefore, the Ark was much larger than what the plain text of Genesis says. He finally and inexplicably conceives the shape of the ark as a pyramid with a square base that tapers to a square top.

 3. A Luminous Cloud 


Artistic rendition of Noah in his little boxy Ark on the aforementioned Jonah sarcophagus. Note the olive branch and dove.

The Sethian Gnostics are by far the most creative. According to their flood story found in The Apocryphon of John, a second century gnostic text, God is an evil Demiurge who decides to destroy the world by means of a Flood. In an attempt to spoil the Demiurge’s plans, the personification of foreknowledge, Pronoia, warns Noah to save the human race. Rather than an ark, though, Noah gathers some people together and hides them in a luminous cloud, thereby surviving the deluge.

We can see, then, that early Christians held a plurality of beliefs about Noah, the Ark, and the Flood. Although Aronofsky pays little heed to the Genesis account, he’s joining a long and storied lineage of people embellishing and innovating upon this beloved story. As “bizarre” as it may be, it is certainly no more weird than the Sethian versions, and he may even make some early Christians proud by giving extra screentime to the Watchers.

We must remember that 21st century Protestants don’t have a monopoly on the Flood story. Not only do we share it with Jews and Muslims, but less populous religious groups such as the Mandaeans, Samaritans, and Bahá’ís also hold it dear. My inner cynical movie critic has already convinced me that the movie will be terrible, but whether it is a blockbuster or a flop, why not judge it on cinematic rather than theological grounds?

Further Reading:

Origen, Contra Celsum

Origen, Homilies on Genesis II.2

Apocryphon of John

Animal Sacrifice, the Other, and the Day I Almost Fainted in Class

Sacrifice_boar_Louvre_G112When you research ancient magic, you acclimate to a world of weird, unorthodox, and downright gruesome rituals. Harvesting body parts for a spell? Graphic descriptions of ritual mutilation? Smearing animal dung on yourself for invisibility powers? Meh. I’ve read it all. So for all intents and purposes I’m impervious to being rattled by strange and disturbing rituals…right?

Well…apparently not…since I almost fainted in class after watching the beheading of a baby goat.

Seldom does Greco-Roman religion capture the attention of a class full of undergraduates, so what better way to rouse interest in Roman cult than showing an actual sacrifice? My professor pulled up this video—the sacrifice of a little goat in the West Bengal town of Tarapith in 2011.

She assured us that although she “could have found videos a lot worse than this,” anyone could close their eyes if it proved too much to handle. Of course, I wasn’t going to do such a thing. I, like any self-respecting expert in ritual, would watch with rapt attention and a scholarly eye to detail.

I watched as the priest flicked the goat with water, prayed over it, and stroked the weapon that would soon end its life. The video then reached a fevered pitch. With the drums pounding in the background, the priests carried the goat to the stake, pulled its legs back, and stretched its neck out as it bleated piteously. The sound was truly disturbing and shocked me out of my detached objectivity.

The priest then chopped its head off. No fanfare. No incantation or prayer. Just a hefty blow to the neck.

This didn’t disgust me. I felt more a sense of macabre fascination as the priests tossed the twitching body aside as if nothing happened. But as I ruminated over what I just saw (“wow, things really do twitch after decapitation!”), I started feeling lightheaded. First just simple dizziness. But then the voice of the professor became strangely distant, and I recognized the onset of a vasovagal syncope.

Somehow in the midst of my stupor, I had the mental wherewithal to feign taking notes on my iPad. Anything to save face as the only graduate student in the room right? I wouldn’t ever live it down.

Thankfully I recovered quickly enough. Shaken and sweaty, I sat back in my chair and brooded. What just happened? I’ve been raised in the Christian sub-culture. I’ve been reading about animal sacrifices since 1st grade Sunday school. Heck, I’ve been reading about human sacrifice since childhood if you count the episode with Abraham and Isaac. Am I really so shocked to see this for the first time? And even then, in a blurry YouTube video?

I decided the reaction stemmed from the radical “otherness” of the spectacle. For a modern churchgoer accustomed to well-tuned organs and dainty sippy-cups of grape juice as his idea of worship, beheading a goat is insurmountably weird or “other.“

This brings me back to a topic covered in an earlier post: how to exercise empathy in religious dialogue. One strategy to converse with “the Other” is to recognize the weirdness of your own religious practices in order to avoid creating a caricature. However, this recent episode illustrates how difficult this is. How can we honestly and openly dialogue between religions when sometimes the chasm of difference is so vast?

I have no easy answer. In fact, I’m apparently too ensconced in my own Western Protestant bias to even provide an answer. The true irony here is that animal sacrifice was the primary vehicle for relating to God for all the biblical heroes in the Hebrew Bible and a daily fact of life for many in the New Testament. Christianity’s modern iterations, in many (most?) respects, would be completely unrecognizable even to St. Paul. Like the sacrifice in West Bengal, the origins of my own faith are distant and foreign, and even though Christians like to cozy up with friendly characters like Moses or David, it takes a heavy dose of humility to acknowledge the difference in their religious experience.

As the British novelist L.P. Hartley quipped, “The past is a foreign country, they do things differently there.” This is the central challenge of the scholar and the layperson alike. We must excavate meaning from a culture that not only is foreign but is separated by millennia. Sometimes the differences appear insurmountable, but this should not discourage us from building bridges to the Other.

Why Empathy Trumps Sympathy in Religious Dialogue

Shinto_PriestWhile flipping through a photo album from my brother’s trip to Japan, an Evangelical friend of mine paused on the image of a Shinto priest bowing before an altar. Dressed in traditional vestments, the priest was fulfilling one of his primary duties to offer food and clothing to a kami—a local Japanese spirit or deity.

With genuine pity my friend said, “Its so sad to see that, I wish they could know the hope we have in Jesus.”

From a western Evangelical perspective, a Shinto shrine certainly is as “other” as you can get. Even in the midst of my graduate studies in religion, I know nothing about Shintoism except for the vaguest caricatures of its beliefs. However, the sympathy that she expressed does more to hinder than help our interactions with other religions. What we need is true empathetic understanding to foster connection.

Last week the Royal Society for the Encouragement of the Arts released this viral video that pinpoints four attributes of empathy as opposed to sympathy:

1. The ability to take another’s perspective and recognize that perspective as their truth.

2. Staying out of judgement.

3. Recognizing emotion in others.

4. Communicating that recognition effectively.

Sympathy, on the other hand, involves trying to comfort the individual, find a silver lining in the situation, or offer advice on how to alleviate the other’s pain. Genuine or otherwise, sympathy lacks the key element of sharing the other’s perspective.

In short, “empathy fuels connection” while “sympathy drives disconnection.”

Much of our inter-religious interactions (and indeed inter-denominational interactions within Christianity) falls into the latter category. We are so assured of our own religion’s truth that we pity others for their ignorance or obstinate refusal to accept our truth. This expresses itself when we judge others for beliefs we deem wrong or objectify others as potential converts, offering our own religious convictions as a stronger panacea for their brokenness.

Although our expression of sympathy may stem from genuine concern for the other, it belies a deeper failure to empathize with the other. To create true connections, we must set aside our preconceptions and try to understand the other’s truth and why they believe it.

Ways we can exercise religious empathy:

1. Avoid creating simple caricatures of other religions.

The mainstream Evangelical critique of Mormonism is a prime example. I was taught growing up that Mormonism was a “cult” and that they held all sorts of strange beliefs (“Did you know Mormons believe you become gods in the afterlife?”). I never bothered to meet any Mormons or even “research” the religion on Wikipedia. I simply accepted the caricature painted for me. All religions though are far more nuanced than what our preconceived notions tell us. Empathetic religious dialogue requires that we resist stereotypes and attempt to understand others’ beliefs. Only after that occurs can we raise any meaningful disagreements.

2. Recognize your own beliefs as weird.

We tend to view our own rituals and beliefs as normative. Baptism and the Eucharist are familiar, and therefore, “normal.” Offering food to a kami, though, is “weird.” Ironically, Christian belief and rituals—corporate singing, dipping bread into wine, reenacting ancient Jewish cleansing rites—are just as weird for the outsiders looking in. In fact, the ancient Romans thought “eating the body of Christ” was so odd, they accused the early Christians of cannibalism. Exoticizing each other’s rituals does nothing but solidify difference and entrench us in an “us vs. them” dichotomy.

3. Stay out of judgment

When in the midst of suffering, the last thing we want to hear is judgment (the biblical story of Job and his three friends immediately comes to mind). Likewise, in religious dialogue, we might judge others for what we perceive as shortcomings in their worldview. However, when we make these value judgments, we view other worldviews as inherently inferior to our own, invariably driving disconnection.

Empathy in religious dialogue means making yourself vulnerable. It means reaching deep inside yourself and recognizing that we are all broken and that our religion does not equip us with all the answers to life, the universe, and everything. So when someone cries out, “I’m stuck, it’s dark, I’m overwhelmed,” you can respond with, “I know how you feel,” instead of with pity.