To Be Fat And Have Bread

The obsession with body fat is an interesting story. It didn’t begin a few generations ago but goes back centuries. But maybe that shouldn’t be surprising.

That was the colonial era when the diet was transformed by imperial trade of foreign foods. I might note that this included previously rare or never before seen varieties of fattening carbohydrates: sugar, potatoes, corn, rice, etc. The old feudal system was ending and entirely different forms of food production and diets were developing, especially for the then landless peasants. Hunting, gathering and grazing for the commoners definitely would have been on the decline for a while at that point, as the last of the commons had been privatized. The loss of access to wild game would take longer in the colonies, but eventually it happened everywhere.

The last stage of that shift overlapped with the beginnings of industrialization and agricultural improvements. In the 19th century, change in wheat surpluses and hence costs and prices. Agriculture boomed as fewer people were employed in it. There was also a sudden obsession with gender roles and social roles in general, such as the post-revolutionary expectation of the mother to make citizens out of her children. Bread-making, a once uncommon activity for Americans, became increasingly important to the normative identity of family life and the symbolic maintenance of the social order.

Regular consumption of wheat bread was once limited to the wealthy and that is how refined bread gained its moral association with the refined class. Only the wealthy could afford wheat prior to the 19th century, as prior to that the poor were forced to rely upon cheaper grains and grain substitutes at a time when bread was regularly adulterated with bark, sawdust, chalk, etc. Poverty breads, in the previous centuries, often were made with no grain at all.* For wheat and especially heavily refined white bread to become available to all walks of life meant an upsurge of the civilizing process. The obsession with middle class life took hold and so cookbooks were produced in large numbers.

In a growing reactionary impulse, there was a nostalgic tendency toward invented traditions. Bread took on new meanings that then were projected onto the past. It wasn’t acknowledged how radical was the industrial agriculture and industrial milling that made all of this possible. And the disconnection is demonstrated by the simultaneous promotion of the grain production of this industrial age and the complaint about how industrialized life was destroying all that was good. Bread, as a symbol, transcended these mere details.

With the aristocracy having been challenged during the Revolutionary Era the refinement of the refined class that once was admired had then become suspect. The ideology of whole foods began to emerge and had some strong proponents. But by the end of the 1800s, the ideal of refinement gained prominence again and prepared the way for the following century of ever greater industrialization of processed foods. Refinement represented progress. Only after more extensive refinement led to mass malnourishment, near the end of that century and heading into the next, did whole foods once again capture the public imagination.

Then we enter the true era of fat obsession, fat blaming, and dieting, endless dieting. Eat your whole grains, get your fiber, make sure you get enough servings of fruits, and veggies, and don’t forget to exercise. Calories in, calories out. Count your calories, count your carbs, count your steps. Count every last one of them. Still, the basic sides of the debate remain the same: fewer carbohydrates vs less meat, whole foods vs refined foods, barbaric lifestyle vs civilizing process, individual moral failure vs societal changes, etc. One theme that runs through dietary advice from the ancient world to the present is that there is a close link between physical health, mental health, and moral health — the latter erupting as moral panic and moral hygiene. But what stands about the modern era, beginning in the 1600s, is that it was observed that psychological problems were mostly seen among the well-to-do.

This was often blamed on luxury and sometimes on meat (a complaint often about animals raised unnaturally in confinement and probably fed grain, the early equivalent of concerns about factory farming; but also a complaint about the introduction of foreign spices and use of fancy sauces to make meat more appetizing), although there was beginning to be an awareness that a high-carb diet might be playing a role in that it was often noted that the morbidly obese ate lots of pastries, fruit pies, and such. The poor didn’t have much access to wheat and sugar before the 1800s, but the wealthy had plenty of such foods centuries earlier. Meat consumption didn’t change much during that era of colonial trade. What did change the most was availability of starchy and sugary foods, and the wealthy consumed them in great proportions. Meat had always been a desirable food going back to earliest hominid evolution. Modern agriculture and global trade, however, entirely transformed the human diet with the introduction of massive amounts of carbohydrates.

It’s strange that right from the beginning of the modern era there were those pushing for a vegetarian diet, not many but their voices were being heard for the first time. Or maybe it wasn’t so strange. Prior to the modern era, a vegetarian diet so far north in Europe would have been impossible. It was only the elite promoting vegetarianism as only they could afford a vegetarian diet year round, in buying expensive plant-based foods that were often shipped in from far away. Although plant foods were expensive at the time, they were available to those who had plenty of money. But during the Middle Ages and earlier, vegetarianism for the most part was not an option for anyone since the food items required of such a diet simply weren’t available enough to sustain life, certainly not in places like England or Germany.

There is another side to this bring us back to the obsession with fat. It was only with the gradual increase of grain production that cattle could be fed grain, not only as additional feed in the winter but year round. This is also what allowed the possibility of confining animals, rather than grazing them on fields. Grain surpluses weren’t consistent until the 19th century, but even before that grain production had been increasing. There were slow improvements in agriculture over the centuries. The rich could afford meat from grain-fed animals much earlier than the rest of the population and it was highly sought after. That is because such meat is extremely fatty creating those beautiful marbled steaks, pork chops, etc (such fattiness, by the way, is a sign of metabolic syndrome in both animals and humans). Fat couldn’t have been a focus of debate prior to grain-fattened animals became common.

So, there is a reason that both wheat bread and fatty meat gained immense symbolic potency at the same time. Similarly, it was during this same era that vegetables became more common and gardens likewise became symbols of wealth, abundance, and the good life. Only the rich could afford to maintain large gardens because of the difficulty involved and immense time-consuming work required (see The Jane Austen Diet by Bryan Kozlowski**; also about the American diet before the 20th century, see The Big Fat Surprise by Nina Teicholz that I quote in Malnourished Americans). They represented the changed diet of modern civilization. They were either indicators of progress or decline, depending on one’s perspective. Prior to modernity, a diet had consisted to a much greater degree of foods that were gathered, hunted, trapped, and fished.

The shift from one source of food to another changed the diet and so changed the debate about diet. There suddenly were more options of foods available as choices to argue about. Diet as a concept was being more fully formulated. Rather than being something inherited according to the traditional constraints of local food systems and food customs, assuming one had the wealth, one could pick from a variety of possible diets. Even to this day, the obsession about dieting carries a taint of class privilege. It is, as they say, a first world problem. But what is fascinating is how this way of thinking took hold in the 1600s and 1700s. There was a modern revolution in dietary thought in the generations before modern political revolution. The old order was falling apart and sometimes actively being dismantled. This created much anxiety and it forced the individual into a state of uncertainty. Old wisdom no longer could be relied upon.

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*Rather than bread, the food that was most associated with the laboring class was fish, a food the wealthy avoided. Think about how lobster and clams used to be poverty foods. In Galenic theory of humoral physiology, fish is considered cold and wet, hard to digest and weakening. This same humoral category of food also included fruits and vegetables. This might be why, even to this day, many vegetarians and vegans will make an exception for fish, in seeing it as different than ‘meat’. This is an old ideological bias because ‘meat’ was believed to have the complete opposite effect of being hot and dry, easy to digest and invigorating. This is the reason for why meat but not fish was often banned during religious fasts and festivals.

As an interesting side note, the supposed cooling effect of fish was a reason for not eating it during the cold times of the year. Fish is one of the highest sources of vitamin A. Another source is by way of the precursor of beta-carotene found in vegetables. That these two types of food are considered of the same variety according to Galenic thought is interesting. Cold weather is one of the factors that can disrupt the body’s ability to convert beta-carotene into usable vitamin A. The idea of humors mixes this up slightly, but it maybe points to understanding there was something important to be understood. Eating more meat, rather than vegetables, in winter is a wise practice in a traditional society that can’t supplement such nutrients. Vitamin A is key for maintaining a strong immune system and handling stress (True Vitamin A For Health And Happiness).

By the way, it was during the 19th century that a discussion finally arose about vegetarianism. The question was about whether life and health could be sustained with vegetables. Then again, those involved were probably still being influenced by Galenic thought. By vegetarianism, they likely meant a more general plant-based diet that excluded ‘meat’ but not necessarily fish. The context of the debate was the religious abstinence of Lent, during which fish was allowed. So, maybe the fundamental argument was more about the possibility of long-term survival solely on moist, cooling foods. Whatever the exact point of contention, it was the first time in the modern Western world where a plant-based diet (be it vegan, vegetarian, or pescetarian-style Mediterranean diet) was considered seriously.

These ideas have been inherited by us, even though the philosophical justifications no longer make sense to us. This is seen in the debate that continues over red meat in particular and meat in general, specifically in terms of the originally Galenic assertion of its heat and dryness building up the ‘blood’ (High vs Low Protein). It’s funny that dietary debates remain obsessed over red meat (along with the related issue of cows and their farts), even though actual consumption of red meat has declined over the past century. As with bread, the symbolic value of red meat has maybe even gained greater importance. Similarly, as I mentioned above, the uncertain categorization of fish remains hazy. I know a vegan who doesn’t eat ‘meat’ but does eat fish. When I noted how odd that was, a vegetarian I was talking to thought it made perfect sense. This is Galenic thought without the Galenic theory that at least made it a rational position, but the ideological bias remains in spite of those adhering to it being unable to explain why they hold that bias. It amuses me.

Ideologies are powerful systems. They are mind viruses that can survive and mutate across centuries and sometimes millennia. Most of the time, their origins are lost to history. But sometimes we are able to trace them and it makes for strange material to study.

See: “Fish in Renaissance Dietary Theory” by Ken Albala from Fish: Food from the Waters ed. by Harlan Walker, and Food and Faith in Christian Culture ed. by Ken Albala and Trudy Eden. Also, read text below, such as the discussion of vegetarianism.

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(Both texts below are from collections that are freely available on Google Books and possibly elsewhere.)

The Fat of the Land: Proceedings of the Oxford Symposium on Food and Cooking 2002
ed. by Harlan Walker
“The Apparition of Fat in Western Nutritional Theory”
by Ken Albala

Naturally dietary systems of the past had different goals in mind when framing their recommendations. They had different conceptions of the good, and at some point in history that came to include not being fat. Body size then became an official concern for dietary writers. Whether the original impetus for this change was a matter of fashion, spirituality or has its roots in a different approach to science is impossible to say with any degree of precision. But this paper will argue that nutritional science itself as reformulated in the 17th century was largely to blame for the introduction of fat into the discourse about how health should be defined. […] Obesity is a pathological state according to modern nutritional science. But it was not always so.

When and why fat became a medical issue has been a topic of concern among contemporary scholars. Some studies, such as Peter N. Sterns’ Fat History: Bodies and Beauty in the Modern West, place the origin of our modern obsession in the late 19th century when the rise of nutritional science and health movements lead by figures like John Harvey Kellogg, hand in hand with modern advertising and Gibson Girls, swept away the Victorian preference for fulsome figures. As a form of social protest, those who could afford to, much as in the 60s, idealized the slim androgynous figure we associate with flappers. Others push the origin further back into the early 19th century, in the age of Muscular Christianity and Sylvester Graham. But clearly the obsession is earlier than this. In the 18th century the 448 pound physician George Cheyne and his miracle dieting had people flocking to try out the latest ‘cures.’ It was at the same time that dissertations on the topic of obesity became popular, and clearly the medical profession had classified this as a treatable condition. And readers had already been trained to monitor and police their own bodies for signs of impending corpulence. The roots of this fear and guilt must lie somewhere in the previous century as nutritional science was still groping its way through a myriad of chemical and mechanical theories attempting to quantify health and nutrition with empirical research.

The 17th century is also the ideal place to look if only because the earlier system of humoral physiology is almost totally devoid of a concept of fat as a sickness. […]

For all authors in the Galenic tradition it appears that fat was seen as a natural consequence of a complexion tending to the cold and moist, something which could be corrected, but not considered an illness that demanded serious attention. And socially there does not seem to have been any specific stigma attached to fat if Rubens’ taste in flesh is any measure.

The issue of fat really only emerges among authors who have abandoned, in part or totally, the system of humoral physiology. This seems to have something to do with both the new attempts to quantify nutrition, first and most famously by Santorio Santorio9 and also among those who began to see digestion and nutrition as chemical reactions which when gone awry cast fatty deposits throughout the body. It was only then that fat came to be considered a kind of sickness to be treated with therapy.10

The earliest indications that fat was beginning to be seen as a medical problem are found in the work of the first dietary writer who systematically weighed himself. Although Santorio does not seem to have been anxious about being overweight himself, he did consistently define health as the maintenance of body weight. Expanding on the rather vague concept of insensible perspiration used by Galenic authors, Santorio sought to precisely measure the amount of food he consumed each day compared to the amount excreted in ‘sensible’ evacuations. […] Still, fat was not a matter of eating too much. ‘He who eats more than he can digest, is nourished less than he ought to be, and [becomes] consequently emaciated.’12 More importantly, fat was a sign of a system in disarray. […]

Food was not in fact the only factor Santorio or his followers took into account though. As before, the amount of exercise one gets, baths, air quality, even emotions could alter the metabolic rate. But now, the effect of all these could be precisely calculated. […]

At the same time that these mechanistic conceptions of nutrition became mainstream, a chemical understanding of how food is broken down by means of acids and alkalis also came to be accepted by the medical profession. These ideas ultimately harked back to Paracelsus writing in the 16th century but were elaborated upon by 17th century writers […] It is clear that by the early 18th century fat could be seen as a physiological defect that could be corrected by heating the body to facilitate digestive fermentation and the passage of insensible perspiration. […] Although the theories themselves are obviously nothing like our own, we are much closer to the idea of fat as a medical condition. […]

Where Cheyne departs from conventional medical opinion, is in his recommendation of a cooked vegetable diet to counter the affects of a disordered system, which he admits is rooted in his own ‘experience and observation on my own crazy carcase and the infirmities of others I have treated’ rather than on any theoretical foundation.

The controversy over whether vegetables could be considered a proper diet, not only for the sick or overgrown but for healthy individuals, was of great concern in the 18th century. Nicholas Andry in his Traité des alimens de caresme offered an extended diatribe against the very notion that vegetables could sustain life, a question of particular importance in Catholic France where Lenten restriction were still in force, at least officially. […] According to current medical theory, vegetables could not be suitable for weight loss, despite the successful results of the empirics. […]

It is clear that authors had a number of potentially conflicting theoretical models to draw from and both mechanical and chemical explanations could be used to explain why fat accumulates in the body. Yet with entirely different conceptual tools, these authors arrived at dietary goals surprisingly like our own, and equally as contentious. The ultimate goals now became avoiding disease and fat, and living a long life. While it would be difficult to prove that these dietary authors had any major impact beyond the wealthy elites and professionals who read their works, it is clear that a concern over fat was firmly in place by the mid 18th century, and appears to have its roots in a new conception of physiology which not only paid close attention to body weight as an index of health, but increasingly saw fat as a medical condition.

Food and Morality: Proceedings of the Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery 2007
ed. by Susan R. Friedland
“Moral Fiber: Bread in Nineteenth-Century America”

by Mark McWilliams

From Sarah Josepha Hale, who claimed, ‘the more perfect the bread, the more perfect the lady’ to Sylvester Graham, who insisted, ‘the wife, the mother only’ has the ‘moral sensibility’ required to bake good bread for her family, bread often became a gendered moral marker in nineteenth-century American culture.1 Of course, what Hale and Graham considered ‘good’ bread differed dramatically, and exactly what constituted ‘good’ bread was much contested. Amidst technological change that made white flour more widely available and home cooking more predictable, bread, described in increasingly explicit moral terms, became the leading symbol of a housewife’s care for her family.

Americans were hardly the first to ascribe moral meaning to their daily bread. As Bernard Dupaigne writes, ‘since time immemorial [bread] has attended the great events of various human communities: monsoon or grape harvest bread, the blessed bread of Catholics or the unleavened bread of Passover, or the fasting-break bread of Ramadan. There is no bread that does not, somewhere in the world, celebrate an agricultural or religious holiday, enrich a family event, or commemorate the dead.’2 With such varied symbolic resonance, bread seems easily filled with new meanings.

In America (as later in France),3 bread became a revolutionary symbol. To the early English colonists’ dismay, European wheat did not adapt well to the North American climate; the shift to corn as the primary grain was perhaps the most important dietary adaptation made by the colonists. Wheat remained too expensive for common consumption well into the nineteenth century. […]

By the end of the Revolution, then, bread was already charged with moral meaning in the young United States. In the nineteenth century, this meaning shifted in response to agricultural improvements that made wheat more widely available, technological change that made bread easier to make consistently, and, perhaps most important, social change that made good bread the primary symbol of a housewife’s care for her family. In effect, bread suffered a kind of identity crisis that paralleled the national identity crisis of Jacksonian America. As Americans thought seriously about who they were in this new nation, about how they should act and even how they should eat, bread’s symbolic meaning – and bread itself– changed.

American agricultural production exploded, although the proportion of the population working on farms declined. James Trager notes that even before the McCormick reaper first sold in large numbers as farmers struggled to replace workers leaving for the 1849 Gold Rush, the average time required to produce a bushel of wheat declined 22 per cent from 1831 to 1840.7 Dramatic improvements in efficiency led to larger yields; for example, wheat production more than doubled between 1840 and 1860. Such increases in wheat production, combined with better milling procedures, made white flour finally available in quantities sufficient for white bread to become more than a luxury good.8

Even as wheat became easier to find for many Americans, bread remained notoriously difficult to make, or at least to make well. Lydia Maria Child, a baker’s daughter who became one of America’s leading writers, emphasizes what must have been the intensely frustrating difficulty of learning to cook in the era before predictable heat sources, standardized measurements, and consistent ingredients.9 […]

Unlike Hale, who implies that learning to bake better can be a kind of self improvement, this passage works more as dire warning to those not yet making the proper daily bread. Though bread becomes the main distinction between the civilized and the savage, Beecher turns quickly, and reassuringly, to the science of her day: ‘By lightness is meant simply that in order to facilitate digestion the particles are to be separated from each other by little holes or air-cells; and all the different methods of making light bread are neither more nor less than the formation of bread with these air cells’ (170). She then carefully describes how to produce the desired lightness in bread, instructions which must have been welcome to the young housewife now fully convinced of her bread’s moral importance.

The path for Beecher, Hale, and others had been prepared by Sylvester Graham, although he is little mentioned in their work.14 In his campaign to improve bread, Graham’s rhetoric ‘romanticized the life of the traditional household’ in ways that ‘unknowingly helped prepare women to find a new role as guardians of domestic virtue,’ as Stephen Nissenbaum notes.15 Bread was only one aspect of Graham’s program to educate Americans on what he called ‘the Science of Human Life.’ Believing on the one hand, unlike many at the time, that overstimulation caused debility and, on the other, that industrialization and commercialization were debasing modern life, Graham proposed a lifestyle based around a strict controls on diet and sexuality.16 While Graham promoted a range of activities from vegetarianism to temperance, his emphasis on good bread was most influential. […]

And yet modern conditions make such bread difficult to produce. Each stage of the process is corrupted, according to Graham. Rather than grow wheat in ‘a pure virgin soil’ required for the best grain, farmers employ fields ‘exhausted by tillage, and debauched by the means which man uses to enrich and stimulate it.’ As Nissenbaum notes, the ‘conscious sexual connotations’ of Graham’s language here is typical of his larger system, but the language also begins to point to the moral dimensions of good bread (6).

Similarly loaded language marks Graham’s condemnation of bakery bread. Graham echoed the common complaints about adulteration by commercial bakers. But he added a unique twist: even the best bakery bread was doubly flawed. The flour itself was inferior because it was over-processed, according to Graham: the ‘superfine flour’ required for white bread ‘is always far less wholesome, in any and every situation of life, than that which is made of wheaten meal which contains all the natural properties of the grain.’ […]

As Nissenbaum argues, pointing to this passage, Graham’s claims invoke ‘the vision of a domestic idyll, of a mother nursing her family with bread and affection’ (8). Such a vision clearly anticipates the emphasis on cookery as measure of a woman’s social worth in the domestic rhetoric that came so to characterize the mid-nineteenth century.

Such language increasingly linking cookery with morality emphasized the virtue not of the food itself but rather of the cooks preparing it. This linkage reached read ers not only through the explosion of cookbooks and domestic manuals but also through the growing numbers of sentimental novels. Indeed, this linkage provided a tremendously useful trope for authors seeking a shorthand to define their fictional characters. And that trope, in turn, helped expand the popularity of interpreting cookery in moral terms. […]

After the Civil War, domestic rhetoric evolved away from its roots in the wholesome foods of the nation’s past toward the ever-more refined cuisine of the Gilded Age. Graham’s refusal to evolve in this direction – his system was based entirely in a nostalgic struggle against modernity, against refinement – may well be a large part of why his work was quickly left behind even by those for whom it had paved the way.

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Here is another text I came across. It’s not free, but it seems like a good survey worth buying.

 

 

“A Bitch For God”

“I challenge the idea that the people who got us in this ditch are the only ones who can get us out of it.”

Marianne Williamson has called herself “a bitch for God.” As presidential candidate, she is getting plenty of attention right now. She is well known among a certain crowd, as she has written numerous books that sold widely, including best-sellers, such as Healing the Soul of America that topped The New York Times nonfiction list for 39 weeks: “Seven reached the New York Times best-seller list, and four hit No. 1” (Cameron Joseph, Marianne Williamson Knows You Think She’s a Joke. But Her Campaign Isn’t.). I’ve known about her since the 1990s during my young adulthood. But for most Americans, she hasn’t been a household name. Yet many people are more familiar with her words, such as a quote often misattributed to Nelson Mandela: “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.”

Besides being on Oprah’s show in the past, she is well connected and, for those who know her, strongly supported. She has inspired many people, from famous stars to ordinary Americans, including in politics: “She has some surprising adherents in the Granite State, including former Rep. Paul Hodes who served as a co-chairman on President Obama’s 2008 campaign and is still a power broker in the state. He’s been a Williamson fan since her heyday in the ’90s — her quote “Who are we to stay small?” inspired him to run for Congress a decade-plus ago and hangs in his home to this day,” as reported by Cameron Joseph. That has been her career, inspiring people and she has a talent for it. It is the kind of mixing of religion, politics, and progressive vision we haven’t seen in a while, maybe not since Martin Luther King Jr.

I must admit it feels validating to hear her in the mainstream media, particularly in the early Democratic debates. She comes out of the same background as I do, something I explained in another post (Heretic For President!). She is part of a heretical tradition of thought that goes back to the earliest Christians. Today, we think of it as “New Age” or what in the liberal wing of Christianity is called New Thought. Basically, she believes God is Love — no ifs, ands, or buts. It’s the radical message of Jesus himself, too often diluted or rationalized away and yet still carrying a powerful punch when released from centuries of stale dogma.

Williamson was the minister of the second largest Unity church in the country, the denomination of Christianity I was raised in. She still does guest speaking at that church and other churches. Her primary career has been as a Christian minister, but the mainstream, both left and right, caricatures her as a New Ager, spiritual guru, or whatever; although I’ll give Slate some credit for sort of complimenting her, if backhanded (Shannon Palus, The Bizarre Charm of Marianne Williamson). “I do not understand why everyone is so dismissive of her,” said Marshall Kirkpatrick. “Are we really so out of touch with emotions, spirituality, etc that she seems insane?” If corporate media were to be fair, they’d have to admit she is a Christian minister who comes out of the American Evangelical tradition (Unity Church) and who upholds a theology that has its roots in the earliest Christianity by way of Valentinianism (A Course In Miracles). That is maybe too much historical knowledge for a society that suffers from permanent historical amnesia. She may be a heretic, but she is a heretic with credentials. I’ll call it the return of the repressed. It’s amusing.

Despite it all, Unity is slowly creeping into the mainstream. This has been going on for a long time. I remember when visiting non-Unity churches in decades past and I would sometimes come across the Unity publication The Daily Word even in mainstream churches. So, many people were reading New Thought theology without knowing it. More recently, the Unity Church showed up in a major subplot of the tv show The Path (Meyerism and Unity Church). Then there is the story of Carlton Pearson, as told in a segment on This American Life and in the Netflix movie Come Sunday. He attended Oral Roberts University and was mentored by Oral Roberts himself. As a popular fourth generation Pentecostal preacher, he came to a point of crisis in his faith. He no longer could believe God was a horrific and monstrous demiurge threatening people with eternal damnation. After much inner struggle, he converted to the view that there is no hell, was officially condemned as a heretic, lost his congregation, and then found his faith again in New Thought theology. He has since become the senior minister of a New Thought church and an affiliate minister of a Unity church. His story has inspired many.

Now here we are. We have a Unity minister as a presidential candidate. To me, it is mind-blowing. Unity Church powerfully shaped who I am. I can’t shake the blinding idealism of New Thought theology, in the way an ex-Catholic never quite gets over original sin or an ex-Baptist never loses that sense of fire-and-brimstone breathing down their neck. It is hard to explain being raised in that kind of light-and-love sincerity. I remember going to what was the Unity equivalent of a Bible camp, called Youth of Unity. I had never experienced so much positivity and goodwill in my life. Then I returned back to ‘normal’ life of high school and it shook me to the core. As wonderful as Unity was, it wasn’t the way life operated or so I was told. I was supposed to get real and accept the world the way it was. Like most others growing up in this society, cynicism fell upon me like a sledgehammer.

But Marianne Williamson embodies and exemplifies another way of being. She suggests there is another way and she walks her talk. She doesn’t care who attacks her. She won’t attack back. Instead, when she feels she is wrong, she admits and apologizes. Holy fuck! Someone aspiring to be president who isn’t afraid to apologize! Trump came to power on the arrogant, egomaniac and psychopathic claim that morality, compassion, and common human decency no longer matters. Williamson disagrees down to her soul that it does matter. How we act determines the kind of country we live in. And she is driven to make the world a better place or go down trying. When arguing her position, she doesn’t fall back on talking points. In response to a question about her strategy, she used air quotes as she spoke of her “strategy” — she said that her only strategy was to speak the truth she knows and to continue campaigning as long as people supported her vision of America (Marianne Williamson says she supports mandatory vaccines – but ‘when they are called for’). Her non-aggressive approach doesn’t come across as weakness for, when a principle is at stake, she doesn’t back down. And she isn’t afraid to call someone out on their bullshit, including the MSNBC interviewer Jo Ling Kent, but even then she does so with perfect politeness.

Her personality comes across as strong and confident, and not as a pretense and pose. I loved watching her in that interview. Before answering, she would often get this serious look on her face as if she were scrutinizing the true intentions behind the question and contemplating it as a philosophical issue. Such sincerity is potent, an antidote to cynicism. Trump would have a hard time combating her because she would never give him the kind of response he feeds on. No one is likely to throw Williamson off message because she lives her message. Walk and talk are perfectly aligned. I’m not sure how many people listening to her get where she is coming from. It’s something I’m extremely familiar with from years in the Unity Church. But most people rarely come across authenticity at this level. It’s not something we’ve come to expect in politics. The last time I heard a candidate this straight-shooting was when I went to a speech given by Ralph Nader when he was running for president in 2000, but even he didn’t come across with the same confidence in vision. Even Bernie Sanders, in his down-to-earth style, doesn’t come across as powerfully as this.

Marianne Williamson, in the Democratic debate said, “So, Mr. President, if you’re listening, I want you to hear me please — you have harnessed fear for political purposes and only love can cast that out … I’m going to harness love for political purposes. I will meet you on that field and, sir, love will win.” Who says something like that in a national political debate, especially in a political party that has become infamous for its political insincerity from Clinton domination, and even more especially while facing president Donald Trump who came to power through hate, anger, and outrage. Such audacity to proclaim love in this era of cynicism. Listen to what she said in that debate (Tim Hains, Marianne Williamson: If You Think We’re Going To Beat Donald Trump By Having A Lot Of Plans, You’ve Got Another Thing Coming). She kicks ass! And it has won her a following, something the corporate media is trying to dismiss — oddly, one hit piece calls her positivity-spouting and humorous followers on Reddit “trolls” (Ben Collins, 2020 candidate Marianne Williamson’s reddit following).

Those in the mainstream are looking for reasons to attack her. For example, some misrepresent her as an anti-vaxxer (Jo Ling Kent, Marianne Williamson says she supports mandatory vaccines – but ‘when they are called for’). In explaining her actual position, she states in no uncertain terms that, “I understand that many vaccines are important and save lives. I recognize there are epidemics around the world that are stopped by vaccines. I also understand some of the skepticism that abounds today about drugs which are rushed to market by Big Pharma.” There is no way to fairly call her an anti-vaxxer. What she is mainly questioning is the anti-democratic role big biz plays in public policy and wants to ensure the best scientific evidence possible is available to promote the public good. She is a principled anti-corporatist and pro-democrat. As she put it in her own words, “I want you to rail against the chemical companies and their GMO’s — not support them. I want you to decry the military industrial complex — not assure them you’re their girl. I want you to support reinstating Glass-Steagall — not just wink at Wall Street while sipping its champagne” (An Open Letter To Hillary Clinton).

She supports mandatory vaccinations when they meet the criteria of the highest standards of the scientific method, if and only if the best evidence strongly supports a public health concern that is proven beyond a reasonable doubt to be remedied only through this drastic course of action. Otherwise, if the evidence is weak or still under debate, if big pharma is unduly influencing government decisions, then we are morally forced to defend democratic process and individual liberty, personal conscience, and bodily autonomy. It is the forever difficult but not impossible democratic balance between public good and private good. A mandatory vaccination is justified in many cases and maybe not in others. She is not promoting denialism. After all, she has vaccinated her own daughter. Science isn’t a dogmatic belief system that is forever settled. Instead, science is an ongoing process. To act like it is otherwise is anti-scientific.

The same problem comes up with attacks on her credibility because she is skeptical about GMOs. Do these people even bother to look into the science? I could write a long post about all the contrary evidence, especially the relationship between GMOs and increased pesticide use (as opposed to organic farming), but this isn’t the place to flesh out that debate. Let’s just honestly acknowledge it exists as a contested issue, a state of affairs that, of course, is reported on in the alternative media but also found in mainstream sources (a few examples: The UK’s Royal Society: a Case Study in How the Health Risks of GMOs Have Been Systematically Misrepresented by Steven Druker from Independent Science News, How GMOs Cut The Use Of Pesticides — And Perhaps Boosted It Again by Dan Charles from NPR, Largest-Ever Study Reveals Environmental Impact of Genetically Modified Crops by Caroline Newman from University of Virginia, Major Pesticides Are More Toxic to Human Cells Than Their Declared Active Principles by Robin Mesnage et al from BioMed Research International, etc).

If only from a viewpoint of the precautionary principle, whether about the GMOs themselves or the pesticides heavily used with GMOs, it’s perfectly rational that the vast majority of Americans (Democrats, Republicans, and Independents) are concerned about GMOs and strongly support having GMO foods labeled — 71-95%, depending on the question and the group asked (Chris Mooney, Stop Pretending That Liberals Are Just As Anti-Science As Conservatives). Not that American politics was ever constrained by nuance. That is precisely the problem. Williamson is arguing that we must understand diverse problems as being systemically related, such as health and the food system or such as the inseparable relationship between GMOs and pesticides. Yet nuance is deemed ‘loony’ because it challenges the dominant paradigm that is dominated by corporate agendas.

As a loony left-winger myself, here is how I put it: “Yeah, monocultural GMO crops immersed in deadly chemicals that destroy soil and deplete nutrients are going to save us, not traditional grazing land that existed for hundreds of millions of years. So, sure, we could go on producing massive yields of grains in a utopian fantasy beloved by technocrats and plutocrats that further disconnects us from the natural world and our evolutionary origins, an industrial food system dependent on turning the whole world into endless monocrops denatured of all other life, making entire regions into ecological deserts that push us further into mass extinction. Or we could return to traditional ways of farming and living with a more traditional diet largely of animal foods (meat, fish, eggs, dairy, etc) balanced with an equal amount of vegetables, the original hunter-gatherer diet” (Carcinogenic Grains). Tell me. Is my skepticism irrational? If so, how has the highly destructive ‘rationality’ of mass industrialization been working out for life on this planet, as we head toward the cliff of mass extinction and climate change?

In many different ways, Marianne Williamson is a potential threat to the Clinton Democrats. Republicans have sensed this and, as a way of fucking with Democrats, some of them have donated to her campaign (Cnaan Liphshiz, Republicans donate to Marianne Williamson’s campaign to keep her in the Democratic debates). It reminds me of how Democrats promoted Trump in the hope that would ensure a Democratic victory. It’s funny that Republicans are falling into the same trap of naivete. Williamson isn’t a mere unknown outlier. After the debate she participated in, her name was the most Googled and, even while the debate was happening, Google searches for her name spiked every time she spoke (Malachi Barrett, Marianne Williamson searches in Michigan explode after Democratic debate). Also, “Williamson has performed better in national polls than more established candidates like New York Mayor Bill de Blasio; Montana Gov. Steve Bullock; and Tulsi Gabbard, congresswoman from Hawaii” writes Merle Ginsberg (Presidential Candidate Marianne Williamson Is Running on Empathy); and she concludes that, “If anybody could play Jesus to Trump’s Antichrist, Williamson is, as our wayward president would put it, straight out of central casting.”

Williamson is no lightweight. In the debates, she is the only candidate that brought up the harmful US policy in Latin America — interestingly, the only article I came across mentioning this came from a conservative source (Christian Watson, Democratic debate showed conservatives could learn something from Marianne Williamson). And she is bold in her vision that comes across as quite left-wing (e.g., since 1997, she has supported reparations for African American slave descendants) while simultaneously invoking the American founding generation of revolutionaries. Here is how she puts it: “Franklin Roosevelt said that the primary role of the presidency is moral leadership. Americans are a decent people, but over the last 50 years, the concept of what it takes to live a good life—an ethical life—has been overtaken by corporatocracy. When I was a child, corporations were expected to have responsibility to the community, not just focus on fiduciary responsibilities to stockholders. Soulless economics has not brought us economic vibrancy. It’s destroyed our middle class and replaced a model of democracy with a model of aristocracy. We repudiated that in 1776—and need to repudiate it again.”

We used to call that a jeremiad, an American tradition if there ever was one (Sacvan Bercovitch, The American Jeremiad). If that is ‘woo’, then give me more of it. This is ‘woo’ that could seriously shake up public and political debate and hopefully a whole lot more. Give me some of that old time religion.

American Spirituality

The United States is a religious society. But I don’t know to what degree it is a spiritual society. I’m not even quite sure what spirituality can mean here. There is an Anglo-American history of spirituality: Transcendentalism, Spiritualism, Mesmerism, Theosophy, etc. The Shakers are an interesting example, specifically of community. They originated from the Quakers, as they were the Shaking Quakers. They were really into communal dancing with the noise they made being heard miles away. They were also really into Spiritualism with their members going into trance states, channeling spirits, doing spirit paintings, etc. The Shakers, by the way, advocated abstinence. That might explain some of their behavior. They needed some kind of outlet. Avoiding sex meant they had to adopt children to maintain their society, which they did over a century. That is what happened to my great grandfather. He was one of the last generation of Shaker children. I would have loved to known about his experience, but apparently he never talked about it.

There were a lot of similar things going on during the revival movements of the Great Awakenings. All kinds of odd behaviors were common, from shaking to talking in tongues. The people believed God or the Holy Spirit came down and essentially possessed them. It’s hard to imagine this happening today in this country. There are still some churches that have such practices, including such things snake handling, though it doesn’t seem to be at the same level as seen in these once massive revivals. Interestingly, the Piraha also do snake handling when possessed, not that they think of it as possession. A possessed Piraha becomes entirely identified with the spirit, such that not even other Piraha would recognize him as anything else. The Piraha, by the way, have no shamanic tradition as such and so no shamans. Possession isn’t part of any formal tradition or rituals and just happens. Because of that, the Piraha might be a good framework for understanding some of the spiritual eruptions in American society.

Then there is the whole phenomenon of UFO sightings and abductee experiences, Mothman and Men in Black. That has developed into numerous UFO and alien cults (some good books have been written on that). Carl Jung considered UFOs to be an expression of a religious impulse, something new seeking to emerge within our society (see a letter he wrote to Gilbert A. Harrison and his book Flying Saucers: A Modern Myth of Things Seen in the Skies). Like Jung, others have seen a spiritual/mythological component to this. The biggest name being the astrologer and computer scientist Jacques Vallee who noted the similarity between alien abduction accounts, fairy abduction stories, and shamanic initiations. John Keel wrote about similar things. In a scientific age, it is in a scientific guise that spirituality often gets expressed. This is the unexpected form that the next major religion is likely to take. In the way that the Axial Age religions took ahistorical myths and rewrote them as history, our society will take non-scientific myths and retell them as science. On a personal level, that will be how spirituality will be experienced by many — if not necessarily the rise of UFO cults, then something like it.

I wonder what it would look like in the U.S. if we had a fourth (fifth?) Great Awakening with the large revivals or else along these lines, although not necessarily in Christian dressing. Admittedly, it’s harder to imagine it. But secularism doesn’t alter the underlying yearning for spirituality, for something transcendant or other, something ecstatic and transformative. The hunger is there, obviously. It just gets subverted in our capitalist society. The closest we come is presidential elections when people become a bit mentally unbalanced… still, not the same thing, at least not these days. But according to early American records, elections were more like ecstatic Carnival with truly wild behavior going on. Elections with their group-minded partisanship — combined with cult of personality — can make people lose their individual sense of self into something greater (see Winter Season and Holiday Spirit). That maybe the main purpose of elections in our society, not so much for democracy (as U.S. politics fails on that account) but as a state religion. I sometimes wonder if our entire society isn’t possessed in some sense. That might be a better explanation than anything else. That maybe the difficulty the respectable classes have in coming to terms with President Donald Trump, as he is less of a politician than a religious figure. Heck, maybe he is a lizard person too, as part of an advanced guard of an alien invasion.

* * *

Inventing the People:
The Rise of Popular Sovereignty in England and America
by Edmund S. Morgan
pp. 202-203

There were other parallels in contemporary English country life, in the fairs, “wakes,” and local festivals that punctuated the seasons, where sexual restraints were loosened and class barriers briefly broken in a “rough and ready social equality.” 82 But these were simply milder versions of what may be the most instructive parallel to an eighteenth-century election, namely the carnival— not the travelling amusement park familiar in America, but the festivities that preceded Lent in Catholic countries. The pre-Lenten carnival still survives in many places and still occupies an important place in community life, but it has assumed quite different functions from the earlier festivals. 83 It is the older carnivals, before the nineteenth century, that will bear comparison with eighteenth-century elections.

The carnival of the medieval or early modern period elicited from a community far more outrageous behavior and detailed ritual than did the elections that concern us. 84 But the carnival’s embellishments emphasize rather than obscure the fact that make-believe was the carnival’s basic characteristic and that carnival make-believe, like election make-believe, involved role reversal by the participants.

pp. 205-207

Where social tensions ran too high the carnival might become the occasion for putting a real scare into the cats and wolves of the community. There was always a cutting edge to the reversal of roles and to the seemingly frivolous competition. And when a society was ripe for revolt, the carnival activated it, as Le Roy Ladurie has shown in his account of the carnival at Romans in 1580. But normally a community went its way with the structure of power reinforced by its survival of the carnival’s make-believe challenge.

To put this idea in another way, one might say that the carnival provided society with a means of renewing consent to government, of annually legitimizing (in a loose sense of the word) the existing structure of power. Those who enacted the reversal of roles, by terminating the act accepted the validity of the order that they had ritually defied. By not carrying the make-believe forward into rebellion, they demonstrated their consent. By defying the social order only ritually they endorsed it. […]

The underlying similitude of an eighteenth-century election to a carnival is by now apparent. The two resembled each other not only in obvious outward manifestations— in the reversal of roles, in the make-believe quality of the contests, in the extravagance of the partisanship of artificial causes, in the outrageous behavior and language, in the drunkenness, the mob violence, even in the loosening of sexual restraints— not only in all these external attributes but also in an identity of social function. An election too was a safety valve, an interlude when the humble could feel a power otherwise denied them, a power that was only half illusory. And it was also a legitimizing ritual, a rite by which the populace renewed their consent to an oligarchical power structure.

Hence the insistence that the candidate himself or someone of the same rank solicit the votes of the humble. The election would not fully serve its purpose unless the truly great became for a time humble. Nor would it serve its purpose if the humble did not for a time put on a show of greatness, not giving their votes automatically to those who would ordinarily command their deference. Hence too the involvement of the whole populace in one way or another, if not in the voting or soliciting of votes, then in the tumults and riots, in the drinking and feasting, in the music and morris dancing.

It would be too much to say that the election was a substitute for a carnival. It will not do to push the analogy too far. The carnival was embedded deeply in folk culture, and its functions were probably more magical and religious than, overtly at least, political. An election, on had no the other hand, was almost exclusively a political affair, magical overtones; it was not connected with any religious calendar. 90 Nor did it always exhibit the wild excesses of a carnival; and when it did, it was surely not because the local oligarchy felt that this would renew their authority. They would generally have preferred to preserve “the peace of the country” by avoiding the contests that engaged them so hotly and cost them so much when they occurred. Moreover, the reversal of roles did not go anywhere near as far as in a carnival. In an election, along with the fraternization and condescension, there could be a great deal of direct pressure brought by the mighty on those who stood below them, with no pretense of reversing roles.

The resemblance to a carnival nevertheless remains striking. Is it wholly coincidence that there were no carnivals in Protestant England and her colonies where these carnival-like elections took place, and that in countries where carnivals did prevail elections were moribund or nonexistent? Is it too much to say that the important part of an eighteenth-century election contest in England and in the southern colonies and states was the contest itself, not the outcome of it? Is it too much to say that the temporary engagement of the population in a ritual, half-serious, half-comic battle was a mode of consent to government that filled a deeper popular need than the selection of one candidate over another by a process that in many ways denied voters the free choice ostensibly offered to them? Is it too much to say that the choice the voters made was not so much a choice of candidates as it was a choice to participate in the charade and act out the fiction of their own power, renewing their submission by accepting the ritual homage of those who sought their votes?

Moralizing Gods as Effect, Not Cause

There is a new study on moralizing gods and social complexity, specifically as populations grow large. The authors are critical of the Axial Age theory: “Although our results do not support the view that moralizing gods were necessary for the rise of complex societies, they also do not support a leading alternative hypothesis that moralizing gods only emerged as a byproduct of a sudden increase in affluence during a first millennium ‘Axial Age’. Instead, in three of our regions (Egypt, Mesopotamia and Anatolia), moralizing gods appeared before 1500.”

I don’t take this criticism as too significant, since it is mostly an issue of dating. Objectively, there are no such things as distinct historical periods. Sure, you’ll find precursors of the Axial Age in the late Bronze Age. Then again, you’ll find precursors of the Renaissance and Protestant Reformation in the Axial Age. And you’ll find the precursors of the Enlightenment in the Renaissance and Protestant Reformation. It turns out all of history is continuous. No big shocker there. Changes build up slowly, until they hit a breaking point. It’s that breaking point, often when it becomes widespread, that gets designated as the new historical period. But the dividing line from one era to the next is always somewhat arbitrary.

This is important to keep in mind. And it does have more than slight relevance. This reframing of what has been called the Axial Age accords perfectly with Julian Jaynes’ theories on the ending of the bicameral mind and the rise of egoic consciousness, along with the rise of the egoic gods with their jealousies, vengeance, and so forth. A half century ago, Jaynes was noting that aspects of moralizing social orders were appearing in the late Bronze Age and he speculated that it had to do with increasing complexity that set those societies up for collapse.

Religion itself, as a formal distinct institution with standardized practices, didn’t exist until well into the Axial Age. Before that, rituals and spiritual/supernatural experience were apparently inseparable from everyday life, as the archaic self was inseparable from the communal sense of the world. Religion as we now know it is what replaced that prior way of being in relationship to ‘gods’, but it wasn’t only a different sense of the divine for the texts refer to early people hearing the voices of spirits, godmen, dead kings, and ancestors. Religion was only necessary, according to Jaynes, when the voices went silent (i.e., when they were no longer heard externally because a singular voice had become internalized). The pre-religious mentality is what Jaynes called the bicameral mind and it represents the earliest and largest portion of civilization, maybe lasting for millennia upon millennia going back to the first city-states.

The pressures on the bicameral mind began to stress the social order beyond what could be managed. Those late Bronze Age civilizations had barely begun to adapt to that complexity and weren’t successful. Only Egypt was left standing and, in its sudden isolation amidst a world of wreckage and refugees, it too was transformed. We speak of the Axial Age in the context of a later date because it took many centuries for empires to be rebuilt around moralizing religions (and other totalizing systems and often totalitarian institutions; e.g., large centralized governments with rigid hierarchies). The archaic civilizations had to be mostly razed to the ground before something else could more fully take their place.

There is something else to understand. To have moralizing big gods to maintain social order, what is required is introspectable subjectivity (i.e., an individual to be controlled by morality). That is to say you need a narratizing inner space where a conscience can operate in the voicing of morality tales and the imagining of narratized scenarios such as considering alternate possible future actions, paths, and consequences. This is what Jaynes was arguing and it wasn’t vague speculation, as he was working with the best evidence he could accrue. Building on Jaynes work with language, Brian J. McVeigh has analyzed early texts to determine how often mind-words were found. Going by language use during the late Bronze Age, there was an increased focus on psychological ways of speaking. Prior to that, morality as such wasn’t necessary, no more than were written laws, court systems, police forces, and standing armies — all of which appeared rather late in civilization.

What creates the introspectable subjectivity of the egoic self, i.e., Jaynesian ‘consciousness’? Jaynes suggests that writing was a prerequisite and it needed to be advanced beyond the stage of simple record-keeping. A literary canon likely developed first to prime the mind for a particular form of narratizing. The authors of the paper do note that written language generally came first:

“This megasociety threshold does not seem to correspond to the point at which societies develop writing, which might have suggested that moralizing gods were present earlier but were not preserved archaeologically. Although we cannot rule out this possibility, the fact that written records preceded the development of moralizing gods in 9 out of the 12 regions analysed (by an average period of 400 years; Supplementary Table 2)—combined with the fact that evidence for moralizing gods is lacking in the majority of non-literate societies — suggests that such beliefs were not widespread before the invention of writing. The few small-scale societies that did display precolonial evidence of moralizing gods came from regions that had previously been used to support the claim that moralizing gods contributed to the rise of social complexity (Austronesia and Iceland), which suggests that such regions are the exception rather than the rule.”

As for the exceptions, it’s possible they were influenced by the moralizing religions of societies they came in contact with. Scandinavians, long before they developed complex societies with large concentrated populations, they were traveling and trading all over Eurasia, the Levant, and into North Africa. This was happening in the Bronze Age, during the period of rising big gods and moralizing religion: “The analysis showed that the blue beads buried with the [Nordic] women turned out to have originated from the same glass workshop in Amarna that adorned King Tutankhamun at his funeral in 1323 BCE. King Tut´s golden deathmask contains stripes of blue glass in the headdress, as well as in the inlay of his false beard.” (Philippe Bohstrom, Beads Found in 3,400-year-old Nordic Graves Were Made by King Tut’s Glassmaker). It would be best to not fall prey to notions of untouched primitives.

We can’t assume that these exceptions were actually exceptional, in supposedly being isolated examples contrary to the larger pattern. Even hunter-gatherers have been heavily shaped by the millennia of civilizations that surrounded them. Occasionally finding moralizing religions among simpler and smaller societies is no more remarkable than finding metal axes and t-shirts among tribal people today. All societies respond to changing conditions and adapt as necessary to survive. The appearance of moralizing religions and the empires that went with them transformed the world far beyond the borders of any given society, not that borders were all that defined back then anyway. The large-scale consequences spread across the earth these past three millennia, a tidal wave hitting some places sooner than others but in the end none remain untouched. We are all now under the watchful eye of big gods or else their secularized equivalent, big brother of the surveillance state.

* * *

Moralizing gods appear after, not before, the rise of social complexity, new research suggests
by Redazione Redazione

Professor Whitehouse said: ‘The original function of moralizing gods in world history may have been to hold together large but rather fragile, ethnically diverse societies. It raises the question as to how some of those functions could still be performed in today’s increasingly secular societies – and what the costs might be if they can’t. Even if world history cannot tell us how to live our lives, it could provide a more reliable way of estimating the probabilities of different futures.’

When Ancient Societies Hit a Million People, Vengeful Gods Appeared
by Charles Q. Choi

“For we know Him who said, ‘And I will execute great vengeance upon them with furious rebukes; and they shall know that I am the Lord, when I shall lay my vengeance upon them.'” Ezekiel 25:17.

The God depicted in the Old Testament may sometimes seem wrathful. And in that, he’s not alone; supernatural forces that punish evil play a central role in many modern religions.

But which came first: complex societies or the belief in a punishing god? […]

The researchers found that belief in moralizing gods usually followed increases in social complexity, generally appearing after the emergence of civilizations with populations of more than about 1 million people.

“It was particularly striking how consistent it was [that] this phenomenon emerged at the million-person level,” Savage said. “First, you get big societies, and these beliefs then come.”

All in all, “our research suggests that religion is playing a functional role throughout world history, helping stabilize societies and people cooperate overall,” Savage said. “In really small societies, like very small groups of hunter-gatherers, everyone knows everyone else, and everyone’s keeping an eye on everyone else to make sure they’re behaving well. Bigger societies are more anonymous, so you might not know who to trust.”

At those sizes, you see the rise of beliefs in an all-powerful, supernatural person watching and keeping things under control, Savage added.

Complex societies gave birth to big gods, not the other way around: study
from Complexity Science Hub Vienna

“It has been a debate for centuries why humans, unlike other animals, cooperate in large groups of genetically unrelated individuals,” says Seshat director and co-author Peter Turchin from the University of Connecticut and the Complexity Science Hub Vienna. Factors such as agriculture, warfare, or religion have been proposed as main driving forces.

One prominent theory, the big or moralizing gods hypothesis, assumes that religious beliefs were key. According to this theory, people are more likely to cooperate fairly if they believe in gods who will punish them if they don’t. “To our surprise, our data strongly contradict this hypothesis,” says lead author Harvey Whitehouse. “In almost every world region for which we have data, moralizing gods tended to follow, not precede, increases in social complexity.” Even more so, standardized rituals tended on average to appear hundreds of years before gods who cared about human morality.

Such rituals create a collective identity and feelings of belonging that act as social glue, making people to behave more cooperatively. “Our results suggest that collective identities are more important to facilitate cooperation in societies than religious beliefs,” says Harvey Whitehouse.

Society Creates God, God Does Not Create Society
by  Razib Khan

What’s striking is how soon moralizing gods shows up after the spike in social complexity.

In the ancient world, early Christian writers explicitly asserted that it was not a coincidence that their savior arrived with the rise of the Roman Empire. They contended that a universal religion, Christianity, required a universal empire, Rome. There are two ways you can look at this. First, that the causal arrow is such that social complexity leads to moralizing gods, and that’s that. The former is a necessary condition for the latter. Second, one could suggest that moralizing gods are a cultural adaptation to large complex societies, one of many, that dampen instability and allow for the persistence of those societies. That is, social complexity leads to moralistic gods, who maintain and sustain social complexity. To be frank, I suspect the answer will be closer to the second. But we’ll see.

Another result that was not anticipated I suspect is that ritual religion emerged before moralizing gods. In other words, instead of “Big Gods,” it might be “Big Rules.” With hindsight, I don’t think this is coincidental since cohesive generalizable rules are probably essential for social complexity and winning in inter-group competition. It’s not a surprise that legal codes emerge first in Mesopotamia, where you had the world’s first anonymous urban societies. And rituals lend themselves to mass social movements in public to bind groups. I think it will turn out that moralizing gods were grafted on top of these general rulesets, which allow for coordination, cooperation, and cohesion, so as to increase their import and solidify their necessity due to the connection with supernatural agents, which personalize the sets of rules from on high.

Complex societies precede moralizing gods throughout world history
by Harvey Whitehouse, Pieter François, Patrick E. Savage, Thomas E. Currie, Kevin C. Feeney, Enrico Cioni, Rosalind Purcell, Robert M. Ross, Jennifer Larson, John Baines, Barend ter Haar, Alan Covey, and Peter Turchin

The origins of religion and of complex societies represent evolutionary puzzles1–8. The ‘moralizing gods’ hypothesis offers a solution to both puzzles by proposing that belief in morally concerned supernatural agents culturally evolved to facilitate cooperation among strangers in large-scale societies9–13. Although previous research has suggested an association between the presence of moralizing gods and social complexity3,6,7,9–18, the relationship between the two is disputed9–13,19–24, and attempts to establish causality have been hampered by limitations in the availability of detailed global longitudinal data. To overcome these limitations, here we systematically coded records from 414societies that span the past 10,000years from 30regions around the world, using 51measures of social complexity and 4measures of supernatural enforcement of morality. Our analyses not only confirm the association between moralizing gods and social complexity, but also reveal that moralizing gods follow—rather than precede—large increases in social complexity. Contrary to previous predictions9,12,16,18, powerful moralizing ‘big gods’ and prosocial supernatural punishment tend to appear only after the emergence of ‘megasocieties’ with populations of more than around one million people. Moralizing gods are not a prerequisite for the evolution of social complexity, but they may help to sustain and expand complex multi-ethnic empires after they have become established. By contrast, rituals that facilitate the standardization of religious traditions across large populations25,26 generally precede the appearance of moralizing gods. This suggests that ritual practices were more important than the particular content of religious belief to the initial rise of social complexity.

 

 

Two Views of Present Christianity

First, everyone can be skeptical of science, including of course scientists themselves — after all, scientists are skeptics by profession. But skepticism pushed toward extreme denialism is mostly limited to the political right, some scientific issues standing out (e.g., climate change). And general distrust of science is broadly and consistently found only among religious conservatives.

This is a point that was made by Chris Mooney in his research showing that there is no equivalent on the political left — as far as I know, not even among the religious left. For example, the smart idiot effect is primarily found on the political right, such that knowledge really does matter to those on the political left (research shows that liberals, unlike conservatives, will more likely change their mind when they learn new info).

The role religion plays is in magnifying this difference between ideological tendencies.

Not All Skepticism Is Equal: Exploring the Ideological Antecedents of Science Acceptance and Rejection
by Bastiaan T. Rutjens, Robbie M. Sutton, & Romy van der Lee

To sum up the current findings, in four studies, both political conservatism and religiosity independently predict science skepticism and rejection. Climate skepticism was consistently predicted by political conservatism, vaccine skepticism was consistently predicted by religiosity, and GM food skepticism was consistently predicted by low faith in science and knowledge of science. General low faith in science and unwillingness to support science in turn were primarily associated with religiosity, in particular religious conservatism. Thus, different forms of science acceptance and rejection have different ideological roots, although the case could be made that these are generally grounded in conservatism.

Study: Conservatives’ Trust In Science At Record Low
by Eyder Peralta

While trust in science has remained flat for most Americans, a new study finds that for those who identify as conservatives trust in science has plummeted to its lowest level since 1974.

Gordon Gauchat, a sociology professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, studied data from the General Social Survey and found that changes in confidence in science are not uniform across all groups.

“Moreover, conservatives clearly experienced group-specific declines in trust in science over the period,” Gauchat reports. “These declines appear to be long-term rather than abrupt.”

Just 35 percent of conservatives said they had a “great deal of trust in science” in 2010. That number was 48 percent in 1974. […]

Speaking to Gauchat, he said that what surprised him most about his study is that he ran statistical analysis on a host of different groups of people. He only saw significant change in conservatives and people who frequently attend church.

Gauchat said that even conservatives with bachelor’s degrees expressed distrust in science.

I asked him what could explain this and he offered two theories: First that science is now responsible for providing answers to questions that religion used to answer and secondly that conservatives seem to believe that science is now responsible for policy decisions. […]

Another bit of surprising news from the study, said Gauchat, is that trust in science for moderates has remained the same.

Here is the second point, which is more positive.

Religious conservatives are a shrinking and aging demographic, as liberal and left-wing views and labels continually take hold. So, as their numbers decrease and their influence lessens, we Americans might finally be able to have rational public debate about science that leads to pragmatic implementation of scientific knowledge.

The old guard of reactionaries are losing their grip on power, even within the once strong bastions of right-wing religiosity. But like an injured and dying wild animal, they will make a lot of noise and still can be dangerous. The reactionaries will become more reactionary, as we have recently seen. This moment of conflict shall pass, as it always does. Like it or not, change will happen and indeed it already is happening.

There is one possible explanation for this change. Science denialism is a hard attitude to maintain over time, even with the backfire effect. It turns out that even conservatives do change their opinions based on expert knowledge, even if it takes longer. So, despite the evidence showing no short term change with policies, we should expect that a political shift will continue happen across the generations.

Knowledge does matter. But it requires immense repetition and patience. Also, keep in mind that, as knowledge matters even more for the political left, the power of knowledge will increase as the general population moves further left. This might be related to the fact that the average American is increasingly better educated — admittedly, Americans aren’t all that well educated in comparison to some countries, but in comparison to the state of education in the past there has been a dramatic improvement.

However you wish to explain it, the religious and non-religious alike are becoming more liberal and progressive, even more open to social democracy and democratic socialism. There is no evidence that this shift has stopped or reversed. Conservatism will remain a movement in the future, but it will probably look more like the present Democratic Party than the present Republican Party. As the political parties have gone far right, the American public has moved so far left as to be outside of the mainstream spectrum of partisan politics.

We are beginning to see the results.

Pro-Life, Pro-Left
by Molly Worthen
(see Evangelicals Turn Left)

70 percent of evangelicals now tell pollsters they don’t identify with the religious right, and younger evangelicals often have more enthusiasm for social justice than for the culture wars

Trump Is Bringing Progressive Protestants Back to Church
by Emma Green

In the wake of Donald Trump’s election, some conservative Christians have been reckoning with feelings of alienation from their peers, who generally voted for Trump in strong numbers. But at least some progressive Protestant churches are experiencing the opposite effect: People have been returning to the pews.

“The Sunday after the election was the size of an average Palm Sunday,” wrote Eric Folkerth, the senior pastor at Dallas’s Northaven United Methodist Church, in an email. More than 30 first-time visitors signed in that day, “which is more than double the average [across] three weeks of a typical year,” he added. “I sincerely don’t recall another time when it feels like there has been a sustained desire on people’s part to be together with other progressive Christians.”

Anecdotal evidence suggests other liberal churches from a variety of denominations have been experiencing a similar spike over the past month, with their higher-than-usual levels of attendance staying relatively constant for several weeks. It’s not at all clear that the Trump bump, as the writer Diana Butler Bass termed it in a conversation with me, will be sustained beyond the first few months of the new administration. But it suggests that some progressives are searching for a moral vocabulary in grappling with the president-elect—including ways of thinking about community that don’t have to do with electoral politics. […]

Even if Trump doesn’t bring about a membership revolution in the American mainline, which has been steadily shrinking for years, some of the conversations these Protestant pastors reported were fascinating—and suggest that this political environment might be theologically, morally, and intellectually generative for progressive religious traditions.

Southern Baptists Call Off the Culture War
by Jonathan Merritt

Indeed, disentangling the SBC from the GOP is central to the denomination’s makeover. For example, a motion to defund the ERLC in response to the agency’s full-throated opposition to Donald Trump failed miserably.

In years past, Republican politicians have spoken to messengers at the annual meeting. In 1991, President George H.W. Bush addressed the group, Vice President Dan Quayle spoke in 1992, and President George W. Bush did so in 2001 and 2002 (when my father, James Merritt, was SBC president). Neither President Bill Clinton nor President Barack Obama were invited to speak to Southern Baptists during their terms. Though Southern Baptists claim not to be affiliated with either major party, it’s not difficult to discern the pattern at play.

Vice President Mike Pence addressed the convention this year, which may seem like the same old song to outsiders. But there was widespread resistance to Pence’s participation. A motion to disinvite the vice president was proposed and debated, but was ultimately voted down. During his address, which hit some notes more typical of a campaign speech, a few Southern Baptists left the room out of protest. Others criticized the move to reporters or spoke out on Twitter. The newly elected Greear tweeted that the invitation “sent a terribly mixed signal” and reminded his fellow Baptists that “commissioned missionaries, not political platforms, are what we do.”

Though most Southern Baptists remain politically conservative, it seems that some are now less willing to have their denomination serve as a handmaiden to the GOP, especially in the current political moment. They appear to recognize that tethering themselves to Donald Trump—a thrice-married man who has bragged about committing adultery, lies with impunity, allegedly paid hush money to a porn star with whom he had an affair, and says he has never asked God for forgiveness—places the moral credibility of the Southern Baptist Convention at risk.

By elevating women and distancing themselves from partisan engagement, the members of the SBC appear to be signaling their determination to head in a different direction, out of a mix of pragmatism and principle.

For more than a decade, the denomination has been experiencing precipitous decline by almost every metric. Baptisms are at a 70-year low, and Sunday attendance is at a 20-year low. Southern Baptist churches lost almost 80,000 members from 2016 to 2017 and they have hemorrhaged a whopping one million members since 2003. For years, Southern Baptists have criticized more liberal denominations for their declines, but their own trends are now running parallel. The next crop of leaders knows something must be done.

“Southern Baptists thought that if they became more conservative, their growth would continue unabated. But they couldn’t outrun the demographics and hold the decline at bay,” said Leonard. “Classic fundamentalist old-guard churches are either dead or dying, and the younger generation is realizing that the old way of articulating the gospel is turning away more people than it is attracting. “

Regardless of their motivations, this shift away from a more culturally strident and politically partisan stance is significant.

As the late pastor Adrian Rogers said at the 2002 SBC annual meeting in St. Louis, “As the West goes, so goes the world. As America goes, so goes the West. As Christianity goes, so goes America. As evangelicals go, so goes Christianity. As Southern Baptists go, so go evangelicals.”

Rogers may have had an inflated sense of the denomination’s importance, but the fact remains that what happens in the SBC often ripples across culture. In Trump’s America, where the religious right wields outsized influence, the shifts among Southern Baptists could be a harbinger of broader change among evangelicals.

The divide between the religious and the rest of the population is smaller than it seems. That is because media likes to play up conflict. To demonstrate the actual views of the religious in the United States, consider a hot button issue like abortion:

  • “As an example of the complexity, data shows that there isn’t even an anti-abortion consensus among Christians, only one Christian demographic showing a strong majority [White Evangelical Protestants].” (Claims of US Becoming Pro-Life)
  • “[A]long with most doctors, most church-going Catholics support public option and so are in agreement with most Americans in general. Even more interesting is the fact that the church-going Catholics even support a national plan that includes funding for abortion.” (Health Reform & Public Option (polls & other info))
  • “[M]ost Americans identify as Christian and have done so for generations. Yet most Americans are pro-choice, supporting abortion in most or all situations, even as most Americans also support there being strong and clear regulations for where abortions shouldn’t be allowed. It’s complicated, specifically among Christians. The vast majority (70%) seeking abortions considered themselves Christians, including over 50% who attend church regularly having kept their abortions secret from their church community and 40% feeling that churches are not equipped to help them make decisions about unwanted pregnancies.” (American Christianity: History, Politics, & Social Issues)

Whatever ideological and political conflicts we might have in the future, it won’t be a continuation of the culture wars we have known up to this point. Nor will it likely conform to battle of ideologies as seen during the Cold War. The entire frame of debate will be different and, barring unforeseen events, most likely far to the left.

* * *

As an additional point, there is another shift that is happening. There is a reason why there feels to be a growing antagonism, even though it’s not ideological per se.

The fact of the matter is “religious nones” (atheists, agnostics, religiously non-identifying, religiously indifferent, etc) is growing faster than any religious group. Mainline Christians have been losing membership for decades and now so are Evangelicals. This is getting to the point where young Americans are evenly split between the religious and non-religious. That means the religious majority will quickly disappear.

This isn’t motivated by overt ideology or it doesn’t seem to be, since it is a shift happening in many other countries as well. But it puts pressure on ideology and can get expressed or manipulated through ideological rhetoric. So, we might see increasing conflict between ideologies, maybe in new forms that could create a new left vs right.

Younger people are less religious than older ones in many countries, especially in the U.S. and Europe
by Stephanie Kramer & Dalia Fahmy

In the U.S., the age gap is considerable: 43% of people under age 40 say religion is very important to them, compared with 60% of adults ages 40 and over.

If nothing else, this contributes to a generational conflict. There is a reason much of right-wing media has viewers that are on average older. This is why many older Americans are still fighting the culture wars, if only in their own minds.

But Americans in general, including most young Evangelicals, have lost interest in politicized religion. Christianity simply won’t play the same kind of central role in coming decades. Religion will remain an issue, but even Republicans will have to deal with the fact that even the young on the political right are less religious and less socially conservative.

Unlabeled Metaphors

At the blog Against the Lie, Eric Huebeck had an interesting post, How religious esotericism is really just a form of lying.

I’m not sure what I think about his views on esotericism, as Lynne Kelly argues that mnemonic practices (that could be interpreted as esotericism) were how oral cultures maintained vast stores of complex knowledge across generations, centuries, and sometimes millennia. But ignoring that, here is the passage that was most relevant to my own views on related matters:

“As an additional point, consider the way in which the communication patterns of schizophrenic persons are characterized by Gregory Bateson, Don D. Jackson, Jay Haley, and John Weakland, in their paper, “Toward a Theory of Schizophrenia”: “The peculiarity of the schizophrenic is not that he uses metaphors, but that he uses unlabeled metaphors” […]

“By endorsing the use of such “unlabeled metaphors” in the Old Testament by claiming that God “speaks” through them, Paul is effectively promoting communication that appears to be schizophrenic in nature. And that in turn means that Paul—and, presumably, the other authors of the New Testament as well—would have seen no reason to avoid the use of “unlabeled metaphors” in their own writings—which means that they would have been making no effort to avoid communicating in ways that appear to be schizophrenic in nature.”

I’ve never come across that notion of “unlabeled metaphors”, in reference to schizophrenia or anything else. Yet the general idea is familiar. To a contrary position, some argue that metaphors are built into our neurocognitive structure and inevitably go unlabeled for the most part. Metaphor, after all, frames our entire sense of identity and reality. It’s not limited to religion, propaganda, or whatever. And it is more complicated when considering metonymy, as discussed by Lewis Hyde.

Maybe the issue here is whether or not these unlabeled metaphors are being used intentionally for deceptive purposes. That is an issue I cover in my numerous discussions of my own pet theory about symbolic conflation. The thing with religion that makes it somewhat unique is the degree that people mistake their beliefs for reality, often on the basis of unlabeled and unconscious metaphors. What we are actually conscious of is a complicated issue considering the human capacity for split consciousness and dissociation.

Esotericism doesn’t necessarily mean the superficial meaning is false. Sometimes, the purpose is looking at multiple kinds or levels of truth. Even if one takes this as bullshit, many hold this double vision with utter sincerity. This returns us to the territory of Harry G. Frankfurt, truth vs false as differentiated from sincerity vs bullshit. When this differentiation is confused, much confusion follows. But the confusion itself is central in one thing being taken for another. That is the trouble the schizophrenic runs into, as do we all to varying degrees.

Remembering Resurrection

On occasion, I’m reminded of how conventional corporate media can be. The New York Times is supposedly the liberal stronghold of liberal bias and liberal elitism, whatever that is supposed to mean. But obviously what it doesn’t mean is any deep and probing questions about the ideological foundations of our society.

The article that brought this back to my attention was what amounted to a Christian puff piece by John Meacham, some empty filler for the Easter weekend. He is a respectable author and historian within the mainstream establishment and popular media, but this particular article seems to be a throwaway that he quickly jotted down in between more important activities. Obviously, no serious scholarly research was involved, beyond some passing references.

The article is about resurrection and Meacham should know better. He has often written about religion in terms of history, including one book on the American founders. In my accusation, what exactly is it about which he should know better? In NYT, he writes that, “To Homer, as to the rest of the ancient world, what became the Christian idea of personal resurrection was preposterous.” Well, that part is simply misleading. Homer was writing long before the Roman Empire and all religious thought was far different, as human civilization was just emerging from the collapse of the Bronze Age (what Julian Jaynes refers to as the bicameral societies) and the Axial Age with its radically new religious ideas hadn’t yet taken hold.

So, it depends on which era of the ancient world one is talking about. But even in the pre-Axial period, the notion of resurrection was not an unknown concept, as many gods and godmen were brought back to life. This religious motif goes back to some early civilizations. What changed was how the relation between human and divine was imagined and experienced. Resurrection didn’t appear out of nowhere with the myth of Jesus Christ, although at that point it was being reinterpreted. Obviously, personal salvation (or gnosis, nirvana, enlightenment, transformation, etc) couldn’t be conceived until Axial Age individualism had been formulated and established. But centuries into the Axial Age, it was common for various religions to make claims of personal salvation, such as burial inscriptions declaring that as Osiris died and rose so would the buried worshipper.

Meacham pretends otherwise, though. “So singular was the proposition,” he writes, “that a particular person had been resurrected from the dead and that belief in him would lead to eternal salvation; it would hardly have been the early Christians’ first choice of narratives to share. Why argue something so improbable, and so unexpected, unless they believed it had actually happened the way they told the story?” I have a hard time taking him seriously. None of this was original to Christianity.

Belief in such things became well established over the preceding centuries, that is belief in personal salvation by way of resurrection gods and godmen — as Robert M. Price stated in no uncertain terms, “The ancient Mediterranean world was hip-deep in religions centering on the death and resurrection of a savior god. […] It is very hard not to see extensive and basic similarities between these religions and the Christian religion. But somehow Christian scholars have managed not to see it, and this, one must suspect, for dogmatic reasons” (Deconstructing Jesus, pp. 86 & 88). Sure, gnostic Christians and later heresiologists put their own spin on this mytheme, but it was far from having never been seen before. This type of theology emerged out of the meeting point of Alexandrian Jewish Neoplatonism, Greco-Roman Mystery Schools, Egyptian Hellenism, Virgin Isis-Meri worship, Osiris/Horus rituals, Dionysus tradition, etc. For example, the Catholic Church not only incorporated Mithraic elements for the Vatican was literally built on top of a Mithraic ritual cave.

None of this should be unknown to Meacham. In his book about the American founders, there are numerous references to Thomas Paine who wrote about the mythicist origins of Christianity which was well documented at the time. And Thomas Paine was one among many others during that era. Going back to early Christianity, there was much debate on all of this, even to the point that a major Christian Father defended the faith by admitting that there were pagan precursors to Christianity but that this was because the Devil implanted these ideas in earlier false religions in order to deceive humanity. But at least this apologetic defense is more honest in its admission than those who simply pretend the evidence doesn’t exist.

I don’t personally care about other people’s personal beliefs about Christian theology and traditions, rituals and practices. The heretical Unity Church I was raised in didn’t place any priority on such matters. If as a kid I had argued that Christianity borrowed from other religions, most of the people in my church wouldn’t have cared and some of them likely would already have been familiar with the evidence. There is nothing inherently anti-Christian about having knowledge of Christian origins. Nor is it dismissive of Christianity and disrespectful of Christians to admit basic historical facts and mythological precedents, no matter how challenging to our received dogma. Any worthy faith shouldn’t require a leap of ignorance.

Besides, in acknowledging what Christians inherited, it remains fair to argue that Jesus and his early followers helped form an original belief system, as would be true of any mature religion as it developed its own unique tradition. Christian theology about resurrection should be understood on its own terms, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t bother understanding it in terms of the ancient world out of which Christianity emerged. This doesn’t lessen the value of Christianity in any way. Rather, this broadens our potential insight about what it means to have a personal relation to the divine and to be personally saved (or, for atheists and agnostics, to offer context and allow for perspective). These are ancient concerns that extend far beyond Christianity proper. We are inheritors not only of Christianity but of the entire ancient world.

For some Christians such as Robert M. Price, learning the truth causes them to lose faith. But for still others like Tom Harpur, the truth strengthened their faith even further. On that note, no matter what you believe or don’t believe about resurrection: Happy Easter! And in remembrance of resurrection’s ancient agricultural inspiration, after this past long lingering Winter, I welcome the  return of Spring. That is a resurrection of the world that includes us all, even the dead in taking on new forms. Life emerging from the empty tomb of the cold soil is no small miracle.

“We forgot.”

When somebody asked Alexander Hamilton why the Framers hadn’t mentioned God in the Constitution, his answer was deadpan hilarious: “We forgot.”
~ Kurt Andersen

The 18th century captures the American imagination, for reasons that are obvious and less so. It was a pivotal point and many were aware of it at the time. Over the preceding centuries, Feudalism slowly declined for numerous reasons. The most obvious force of change was the enclosure movement that evicted peasants from their land, their homes, and their communities.

This created a teeming population of landless peasants who were homeless, unemployed, and often starving. This sent waves of refugees heading for the cities and later the colonies. It was a direct attack on the rights of commoners (what the American colonists referred to as the rights of Englishmen). With the loss of Feudalism, there was the loss the Church’s traditional role and intimate participation in the daily lives of communities (see Dancing in the Streets by Barbara Ehrenreich). There also was the compounding impact of the Renaissance, Peasants’ Revolt, Reformation, English Civil War, Scientific Revolution, Enlightenment, and expanding colonial imperialism.

Yet, even as the early revolutionary era came to a close, much of the ancient world or the immediate sense of its loss was still fresh in living memory, at least for the older generations. Post-Reformation religious war went hand in hand with political and economic radicalism with early signs of class war, populism, and communism showing up as Feudalism waned, from the Peasants’ Revolt to the English Civil War. Immediately preceding the American Revolution, there was the First Great Awakening which kept alive the earlier radicalism while pushing it to further extremes, this being the initial motivation for the separation of church and state since the religious dissenters were being excluded and oppressed by Anglican state power.

Yet most Americans at the time weren’t formally religious. There were few ministers in the colonies, especially in rural areas. Americans had low rates of church attendance, with rates not increasing until the 19th century (see The Churching of America by Roger Finke and Rodney Stark). It was precisely this lack of formal religion that fed into a new rabid free-for-all where anyone’s religiosity was as good as another’s, where anyone could become a preacher and start their own sect or turn to whatever ideology they preferred, religious or anti-religious. This is how the influences of Reformation and Enlightenment melded together, creating a force greater than either alone.

Even so, the First Great Awakening didn’t directly impact many Americans. Those who heard the fiery preachers of the time were a small part of the population, although in certain cities it led to great tumult. The effect was uneven, some places unaware a change was happening. It was a slow build up of unrest as the American colonies moved toward revolution. It wasn’t so much religion itself but broader cultural shifts. The radical religious were getting louder but so were the radical irreligious. Both hereticism and secularism became virulent, sometimes flowing together as a single force, but not always.

Also, none of it fit into clear class lines. The upper class were filled with unitarians, universalists, deists, and secularists — this was seen in the founding generation but began to take hold earlier such as with Thomas Morton and Roger Williams. But some of the most heretical anti-Christians emerged from the working class, the most famous being Thomas Paine but included several other influential figures. The growing rift was not even so much between Christianity and atheism, rather more between establishment power and the challenges of dissent. On either side of the divide, many voices found themselves formed into a new alignment, voices that otherwise would have been antagonistic.

As with our present moment, the era preceding revolution was a struggle between the contented and the restless, with the former becoming more authoritarian and the latter more radicalized. That schism is a wound that has never healed. The American soul remains fractured. The caricature of culture war spectacle won’t save us. It’s not about religion. The American Founders didn’t forget about God. It wasn’t the issue that mattered then nor that matters now. Religiosity and heresy, even when they take center stage, are always expressions of or proxies for something else.

* * *

Fantasyland, How America Went Haywire:
A 500-Year History

by Kurt Andersen
pp. 56-59

Chapter 8
Meanwhile, in the Eighteenth-Century Reality-Based Community

THE TWENTY-FOUR-YEAR-OLD PHENOM GEORGE WHITEFIELD arrived in America for the first time just before All Saints’ Day, Halloween 1739. The first major stop on his all-colonies tour was Philadelphia. Crowds equal to half the inhabitants of the city gathered to see each performance. Among them was the not-so-religious young printer and publisher Benjamin Franklin.

Franklin was astonished by how Whitefield could “bring men to tears by pronouncing Mesopotamia, ” and “how much they admired and respected him, notwithstanding his common Abuse of them, by assuring them they were naturally half Beasts and half Devils.” The publisher introduced himself on the spot and signed up to print a four-volume set of Whitefield’s journals and sermons, which became an enormous bestseller. But Franklin’s only awakening during the Great Awakening was to the profits available by pandering to American religionists. Over the next three years, he published an evangelical book almost monthly. With Whitefield himself, Franklin wrote, he formed “no religious Connection.”

Franklin and his fellow Founders’ conceptions of God tended toward the vague and impersonal, a Creator who created and then got out of the way. The “enthusiasts” of the era—channelers of the Holy Spirit, elaborate decoders of the divine plan, proselytizers—were not their people. John Adams fretted in a letter to Jefferson that his son John Quincy might “retire…to study prophecies to the end of his life.” Adams wrote to a Dutch friend that the Bible consists of “millions of fables, tales, legends,” and that Christianity had “prostituted” all the arts “to the sordid and detestable purposes of superstition and fraud.” George Washington “is an unbeliever,” Jefferson once reckoned, and only “has divines constantly about him because he thinks it right to keep up appearances.” Jefferson himself kept up appearances by attending church but instructed his seventeen-year-old nephew to “question with boldness even the existence of a god; because, if there be one, he must more approve the homage of reason, than that of blindfolded fear.” He considered religions “all alike, founded upon fables and mythologies,” including “our particular superstition,” Christianity. One winter in the White House, President Jefferson performed an extraordinary act of revisionism: he cut up two copies of the New Testament, removing all references to miracles, including Christ’s resurrection, and called the reassembled result The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth . “As to Jesus of Nazareth,” Franklin wrote just before he died, “I have…some doubts as to his Divinity; though it is a question I do not dogmatize upon…and I think it needless to busy myself with it now, when I expect soon an opportunity of knowing the truth with less trouble.”

When somebody asked Alexander Hamilton why the Framers hadn’t mentioned God in the Constitution, his answer was deadpan hilarious: “We forgot.”

Yet ordinary American people were apparently still much more religious than the English. In 1775 Edmund Burke warned his fellow members of Parliament that the X factor driving the incipient colonial rebellion was exactly that, the uppity Americans’ peculiar ultra-Protestant zeal. For them, Burke said, religion “is in no way worn out or impaired.”

Thus none of the Founders called himself an atheist. Yet by the standards of devout American Christians, then and certainly now, most were blasphemers. In other words, they were men of the Enlightenment, good-humored seculars who mainly chose reason and science to try to understand the nature of existence, the purposes of life, the shape of truth. Jefferson said Bacon, Locke, and Newton were “the three greatest men that have ever lived, without any exception.” Franklin, close friends with the Enlightenment philosophe Voltaire, * was called “the modern Prometheus” by the Enlightenment philosopher Immanuel Kant, and Adams was friends with the Enlightenment philosopher David Hume, whose 1748 essay “Of Miracles” was meant to be “an everlasting check to all kinds of superstitious delusion.” America’s political founders had far more in common with their European peers than with the superstar theologians barnstorming America to encourage superstitious delusion. “The motto of enlightenment,” Kant wrote the year after America won its war of independence, “is… Sapere aude! ” or Dare to know. “Have courage to use your own understanding!”

For three centuries, the Protestant Reformation and the emerging Enlightenment were strange bedfellows, symbiotically driving the radical idea of freedom of thought, each paving the way for the success of the other. Protestants decided they could reject the Vatican and start their own religion, and they continued rejecting the authority and doctrines of each new set of Protestant bosses and started their own new religions again and again. Enlightenment thinkers took freedom of thought a step further, deciding that people were also free to put supernatural belief and religious doctrine on the back burner or reject them altogether.

But the Enlightenment part of this shift in thinking was a double-edged sword. The Enlightenment liberated people to believe anything whatsoever about every aspect of existence—true, false, good, bad, sane, insane, plausible, implausible, brilliant, stupid, impossible. Its optimistic creators and enthusiasts ever since have assumed that in the long run, thanks to an efficient marketplace of ideas, reason would win. The Age of Reason had led to the Enlightenment, smart rationalists and empiricists were behind both, so…right?

No. “The familiar and often unquestioned claim that the Enlightenment was a movement concerned exclusively with enthralling reason over the passions and all other forms of human feeling or attachment, is…simply false,” writes the UCLA historian Anthony Pagden in The Enlightenment: And Why It Still Matters . “The Enlightenment was as much about rejecting the claims of reason and of rational choice as it was about upholding them.” The Enlightenment gave license to the freedom of all thought, in and outside religion, the absurd and untrue as well as the sensible and true. Especially in America. At the end of the 1700s, with the Enlightenment triumphant, science ascendant, and tolerance required, craziness was newly free to show itself. “Alchemy, astrology…occult Freemasonry, magnetic healing, prophetic visions, the conjuring of spirits, usually thought sidelined by natural scientists a hundred years earlier,” all revived, the Oxford historian Keith Thomas explains, their promoters and followers “implicitly following Kant’s injunction to think for themselves. It was only in an atmosphere of enlightened tolerance that such unorthodox cults could have been openly practiced.”

Kant himself saw the conundrum the Enlightenment faced. “Human reason,” he wrote in The Critique of Pure Reason, “has this peculiar fate, that in one species of its knowledge”—the spiritual, the existential, the meaning of life—“it is burdened by questions which…it is not able to ignore, but which…it is also not able to answer.” Americans had the peculiar fate of believing they could and must answer those religious questions the same way mathematicians and historians and natural philosophers answered theirs.

* “As long as there are fools and rascals,” Voltaire wrote in 1767, “there will be religions. [And Christianity] is assuredly the most ridiculous, the most absurd…religion

Meyerism and Unity Church

One of the shows I’ve been following is The Path, about a growing spiritual movement and community called Meyerism (they don’t refer to themselves as a religion). It’s in the third season. My interest has been sustained, even if not quite as good as the first season.

The melodrama has increased over time, but that is probably to be expected. After all, it is about a close-knit faith group that transitions from a cult-like commune to a respectable large-scale organization. It’s a turbulent process with an existential crisis for the community involving a change of leadership. The portrayal of faith feels honest and fair to human nature, the way people struggle and care for what matters most to them.

One aspect I like about the show is the comparison and contrast with Christianity. As the organization grows, they decide to expand their reach to provide more services. Volunteer work and generosity is central to their spiritual vision. So, they invest in a major center in the nearby city, but it is more space than they immediately need. They share the space with others, including a Christian youth group. As a community, they are confident in their faith and so don’t see other groups, religious or otherwise, as competition.

One of the young Meyerists, Hawk, who grew up in the faith soon falls in love with the also young Caleb who leads the youth group. The conflict is that Caleb’s father is a fire-and-brimstone preacher, not accepting of homosexuality. Hawk has to simultaneously come to terms with his own homosexual feelings and those of others. This causes him to question what is faith, what is religion vs a cult, what does it mean to love someone no matter what. His parents raised him in Meyerism, but after his father became the new leader his mother had her own crisis of faith. She has learned to be more accepting and offers Hawk her perspective.

This conflict for Hawk came up again in the most recent episode (ep. 10, The Strongest Souls). Hawk doesn’t want to lose Caleb, but Caleb is afraid of losing his family. Unlike Meyerism, Caleb’s fundamentalist church is not accepting in the slightest. Caleb is feeling unbearable pressure to enter into a program to have his homosexuality cured or whatever they do. In hope of helping Caleb, Hawk looks for a gay-welcoming Christian church and finds himself sitting in a Unity service. That caught my attention. I grew up in the Unity Church (part of New Thought Christianity) and it is the first time I’ve seen it portrayed in any form within mainstream media.

I can be critical of Unity. It is as idealistic and as liberal of a church as you are likely to find. As someone dealing with depression, the idealism I internalized in my youth has been a struggle for me. It has messed up my mind in many ways, a bright light casting a dark shadow. But at the same time, the Unity Church represents some of my happiest memories. I attended Unity youth camps and the experience blew me away. Unity theology is all about love and light. I was never taught any notion about sin, damnation, and hell. These were foreign concepts to me. It is a beautiful religion and the positive feeling and support I felt growing up was immense. It showed me the world could be a different way. But returning to high school after one of those youth camps, it sent me into a tailspin of despair. The idealism of Unity didn’t match the unrelenting oppressiveness of the world I was forced to live in on a daily basis. Positive affirmations and visualizations were no match for the cynical culture that surrounded me. I felt unprepared to deal with adulthood in an utterly depraved world.

Yet that was long ago. For a moment in watching Hawk in that Unity service, I remembered what was so wonderful about the Unity Church. It’s a place where you will be accepted, even the lowest of the low. It’s a church that actually takes Jesus’ message of love seriously. If you think you hate Christianity for all the ugliness of fundamentalism, then you should visit a Unity Church. It has nothing to do with whether or not you want to believe in God or have a personal relationship with Jesus. I can’t say all Unity Churches are equal, as I’ve been to some that felt less openly welcoming than others. But the best of the Unity Churches can give you an experience like few other places.

Aesop and Jesus

“The Life of Aesop and the Gospels”
by Mario Andreassi
p. 164, Holy Men and Charlatans in the Ancient Novel

While individually heterogeneous, the analogies so far highlighted show the similarities in narrative structures of the biographies of Aesop and Jesus. However, analogy certainly does not mean textual interdependence, but it does led to the thesis that the authors of the Life of Aesop and the Gospels aimed, where possible, to place the life of the protagonist in a literary and narrative context known to the public and variously attested in the lives of the philosophers and in the Christian aretalogies. Apart from its complex editorial genesis and notwithstanding many severe judgments in the last century, the Aesop Romance belongs within a wider and consciously literary production: it is no paradox to maintain that ‘those who wrote the Gospels were likely influenced by the same literary model that gave rise to the Life of Aesop’.

‘Aesop’, ‘Q’ and ‘Luke’
by Steve Reece

The last chapter of the gospel of Luke includes a story of the risen Christ meeting two of his disciples on their way from Jerusalem to the village of Emmaus and chastising them with the poetic expression ὦ ἀνόητοι καὶ βραδεῖς τῇ καρδίᾳ ‘O foolish ones, and slow in heart’ (Luke 24.25). No commentator has ever observed that Jesus’ expression occurs verbatim, in the same iambic trimeter metre, in two poetic versions of animal fables attributed to the famous Greek fabulist Aesop. It is plausible that Luke is here, as at least twice elsewhere in his gospel, tapping into the rich tradition of Aesopic fables and proverbs that were widely known throughout the Mediterranean world in the first century ce.

The Fisherman and his Flute
from Wikipedia

Commentators have seen a likeness to the story, although only in the detail of dancing to the pipe, in Jesus’ parable of the children playing in the market-place who cry to each other, “We piped for you and you would not dance; we wept and wailed and you would not mourn” (Matthew 11.16-17, Luke 7.31-2).[8] There is an echo here too of the criticism of unresponsive behaviour found in Herodotus.

[8] Francisco Rodríguez Adrados, History of the Graeco-latin Fable 3, Brill 2003, p.20 (“The proverb in the Gospels may be compared with the fable in that it uses the same musical metaphor of dancing accompanied by flute-playing.”)

Aesop’s Fables in the Bible
by Kent West

About five-hundred and fifty years before Yeshua was born, Aesop collected and/or created many fables, one of which was “The Fisherman and His Pipe”:

There was once a fisherman who saw some fish in the sea and played on his pipe, expecting them to come out onto the land. When his hopes proved false, he took a net and used it instead, and in this way he was able to haul in a huge catch of fish. As the fish were all leaping about, the fisherman remarked, ‘I say, enough of your dancing, since you refused to dance when I played my pipe for you before!’

[…] Nearly six hundred years later Yeshua makes reference to this same fable, having probably learned it as a child:

To what, then, can I compare the people of this generation? What are they like? They are like children sitting in the marketplace and calling out to each other:
“We played the flute for you,
and you did not dance….”
Luke 7:31-32

Aesop as Context for Matthew 7:15-23
by Brandy Vencel

The passage begins with “beware of false prophets.” We must consider the entire passage in light of this introductory phrase. We are given a metaphor, in order to better understand false prophet: they are wolves which get in amongst the sheep by dressing up in sheep skin. {This is a direct reference to Aesop’s The Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing, but we will come back to that.} […]

What makes me so sure that this is an entire passage is its perfect parallelism with Aesop. It is said that Aesop lived around 500 years before Christ. His fables were so powerful, they were the first principle of the progymnasmata writing and rhetoric curriculum, which we know was formalized as early as 100 BC. Because Aesop was utilized not only to instruct in wisdom, but to teach writing and storytelling, and because almost every student would have had to retell Aesop’s fables, we can safely assume that this idea of a wolf in sheep’s clothing had slipped into the culture and provided a frame for discourse for at least 150 years, if not half a millenia, before Christ said these words.

Please realize that He was taking a universally known cultural story, and applying it those who would hurt His sheep.

Aesop’s tale of The Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing has two parts. In the first part, the wolf has trouble getting any sheep to eat because the shepherds are so good at protecting them. The wolf’s problems are solved when he discovers a discarded sheepskin and puts it on. Almost immediately, he manages to snag a sheep for lunch. This is the fist half.

The second half takes an interesting turn. In this half, one of the shepherds decides that he’s in the mood for mutton broth for dinner, and heads out to the flock. He grabs the first sheep he finds…which just happens to be the wolf. The wolf becomes soup, not unlike the fool of Proverbs, who falls into his own pit.

Depending on your version of Aesop, you will have different morals attached {the morals were added much later}. One is: Appearances are deceptive. The other is: The evildoer often comes to harm through his own deceit. {There may be others, of which I am unaware.}

Jesus recasts the wolves as false prophets, and instructs His followers in how to pull the sheepskin off {look at the fruit}.

In the first half, Jesus covers deceptive appearances, and in the second half he covers the harm that comes to the evildoer in the end, as a result of his own choices and actions.

Just like Aesop.

Humor in the Gospels
by Terri Bednarz
pp. 208-209

Whitney Shiner (1998) gives interesting insights on humor when he compares The Life of Aesop and the Gospel of Mark. Both of these works, the argues, were built by editing together various independent narrative episodes. These episodic narratives share common features: 1) their writing style lacks sophistication, 2) they were concise and short, and 3) their main characters persistently outwit antagonists. The main characters tended to be populist tricksters who succeed in unmasking the foibles of the elites, thus making them appear ridiculous. The tricksters target their antagonists with satirical barbs.

Shiner writes that The Life of Aesop advances its plot much more simply than the Gospel of Mark. Aesop merely outwits his antagonists in episode after episode. In hearing the stories of Aesop, one would more likely say, “Not again!” The Gospel of Mark has a more complex plot in which Jesus must repeatedly perform miracles, relate wise dicta, and outwit opponents in order to convince the audience of his ability to get the better of his antagonists. With the Markan Jesus, the hearer would more likely say, “Prove it!” Both the Markan Jesus and Aesop succeed in making their antagonists look foolish.

Shiner details other similarities in the Aesopic and Markan plots. Aesop’s rank and success increase in accord with the mounting hubris that leads to his eventual death at Delphi (Herodotus 2.136). The Markan Jesus also increases in stature, entering Jerusalem as a king (Mark 11:19-11), which also comes at great cost. Like Aesop, Jesus will meet a political death. Shiner notes another similarity: the use of divine causation. For Aesop, there is divine intervention in disputes, in posing and solving riddles, and even in his death. For the Markan Jesus, there is a divine plan that keeps unfolding until it culminates with Jesus’ death.

Shiner examines the ancient practice of intercalation, where an episode is woven into the middle of another episode. He argues that intercalation increases tension in the audience. This technique is found in both the Aesopic and Markan narratives. He gives an example from the Gospel of Mark where Peter stands in the shadows as Jesus is led into council. The audience is led to suspect that Peter follows Jesus in order to watch for an opportunity to express his bravery (Mark 14:53-54). Then Mark inserts the intercalation (14:55-65), which recounts Jesus’ courageous testimony, but then Mark jerks back to Peter where the audience hears Peter’s own bravery melt into a dramatic account of cowardliness (Mark 14:66-72). Shiner then presents an example of Aesopic intercalation. As Aesop cooks his lentil, there is an interruption in which Aesop and Xanthus engage each other in agonistic rhetoric, after which the scene of the cooking of the lentil resumes (Aesop 39, 41).

Shiner stresses that the episodic narratives and the intercalations are designed to keep the audience engaged, but not in the modern sense. Modern audiences anticipate that characters will break from their characterizations, and evolve into more complex figures. Shiner argues that this is not the case with ancient audiences, which expect characters to be static and predictable. For example, Xanthus will always be the butt of Aesop’s witty barbs. For ancient audiences, the episodic narratives do not produce tension by introducing the unexpected but by fulfilling what they anticipate will happen. In other words, the tension builds because the moment of comic recognition is delayed. Aesopic and Markan episodes and their intercalations simply postpone what the ancient audience expects will happen. They know that the antagonists will always receive Jesus’ witty or barbed riposte, or that Peter will stumble yet again, or that Aesop will once more outwit Xanthus.

Whitney Shiner, “Creating Plot in Episodic Narratives: The Life of Aesop and the Gospel of Mark”
by Matthew W. Ferguson

Shiner (pg. 155) begins her analysis by noting that there are “two distinct ways” that the Gospels have been read. One approach, following the from critics, is to view the Gospels as a conglomeration of self-contained episodes that have been stitched together from oral tradition. The other approach is to view the Gospels as a continuous narrative. Shiner argues, however, that these approaches can be harmonized through an “extended episodic narrative.” As Shiner (pp. 155-156) explains:

“In reading the Gospels as episodic narrative, one must see the narrative as simultaneously episodes and as extended narrative. The extended narrative is built from more or less self-contained blocks. Continuity in the extended narrative is found not so much in the continuity of detail in action and characterization between episodes as in continuity in the overall impact of the episodes. To take an analogy from art, extended episodic narrative is like a mosaic.”

Shiner goes on to note that the Life of Aesop, much like the Gospels, is built around narrative episodes that are largely independent. These independent episodes, however, are organized to advance the plot of the macronarrative. As Shiner (pg. 156) explains:

“This is especially true of the most extensive section of the Life, in which Aesop repeatedly outwits his master, the philosopher Xanthus. Much of the macronarrative structure of Aesop, such as Aesop’s sale to the philosopher, his manumission, and his entering into service to Lycurgus, serve to move the narrative from one type of episode, appropriate to Aesop’s earlier situation, to a different style of episode, appropriate to the new plot situation.”

Shiner (pp. 169-174) identifies eight different narrative strategies shared between the Life of Aesop and the Gospel of Mark that are used to weave episodes into a continuous plot:

  1. Similar episodes are repeated to develop a point […]
  2. Within the plot as a whole discrete sections are created that are, in terms of size and content, amenable to episodic development […]
  3. The discrete sections are ordered to suggest a coherent plot development from one to the other […]
  4. Sustained conflicts between the hero and another person or group are established and episodes are used to illustrate conflict […]
  5. Episodes of various lengths are presented to create variety […]
  6. Narrative within episodes is elaborated to enhance the narrative quality of the whole […]
  7. Discrete episodes are interwoven to extend narrative tension or to provide keys for interpretation […]
  8. Similar episode plots are presented at different places in the narrative to recall earlier episodes and to suggest an underlying unity of theme or plot […]

Through these narrative strategies, therefore, Shiner argues that the episodic structure of the Life of Aesop and the Gospel of Mark does not conflict with a continuous narrative. Instead, these strategies are employed to weave continuity within the narrative and a continuous plot.

Lawrence Wills: “The Life of Aesop and the Hero Cult Paradigm in the Gospel Tradition”
by Matthew W. Ferguson

After identifying novelistic biography as the best analogical model for the Gospels, Wills goes on to argue that the anonymous Life of Aesop makes for the best comparison. Wills (pg. 23) explains:

“The tradition of Aesop as a teller of barbed fables … is found as early as the fifth century B.C.E., and the account of his life, which circulated in multiple versions, may derive from narrative traditions that are as old. The extant versions, however, are dated to about the turn of the era, that is, roughly contemporary with the gospels…”

The process of composition described above is very similar to The Certamen of Homer and Hesiod, where an anonymous editor compiles multiple earlier accounts into a single episodic narrative (which then circulates with multiple textual variations). As I explain in my essay “Why Scholars Doubt the Traditional Authors of the Gospels,” the NT Gospels are also better described as edited volumes, rather than the unique work of a single author, based on how they borrow and redact earlier materials (often verbatim), with the editor of the text remaining anonymous.

Beyond these structural observations, however, Wills also notes a number of thematic similarities between the Gospels and the Life of Aesop. As Wills (pg. 23) explains about the subject of the biography:

“Aesop is introduced in the Life as an ugly and misshapen slave who is in the beginning unable to speak. He is devoted to Isis, however, and after he shows kindness to one of the priestesses, falls into a sleep and is granted by the goddess the power of speech. This gift he uses to the utmost–he never stops talking, but with an acid wit skewers the pretensions of his new owner, a philosopher, and also the owner’s wife and fellow philosophers.”

Aesop is prominent for teaching in fables, a form of fiction quite similar to the parables used by Jesus in the Synoptic Gospels. On this point, it is also worth noting John Dominic Crossan’s recent book on the subject, The Power of Parable: How Fiction by Jesus Became Fiction about Jesus. For his teachings, Aesop, like Jesus, runs into problems with the authorities and is executed. As Wills (pp. 23-24) explains:

“Through his cleverness he manages to help both his master and the citizens of Samos, and ultimately attains his freedom. Once free, however, he soon runs foul of the citizens of Delphi, and rebukes them with his sharp-pointed fables. They condemn him to death on a trumped-up charge, and he is executed. When a plague strikes the city, they consult an oracle of Zeus and learn that they must expiate their sin through sacrifice.”

Here, Wills draws a major parallel with the life of Jesus, namely the wrongful execution of the subject, followed by divine vindication. As Wills (pg. 28) argues:

“The relationship of blame, violent reaction, impurity, expiation, and immortality of the hero are drawn close together. Similarities to the expiatory death of Jesus can be seen here, especially if we begin to consider the latter in terms of ambivalent worship with his people, that is, to Jews, Israel, or Jerusalem.”

Wills (pg. 29) also notes that the length of the Life of Aesop is a bit longer than Mark and John, and and about the same length as Matthew and Luke. Wills points out, however, that in terms of structure the Life is more similar to Mark in John, particularly in how the text does not begin with a narrative of the subject’s birth (though Aesop is briefly said to have been born a slave in Amorium of Phrygia, without discussion of the circumstances), or his early growth and development, but is instead focused on his adult life.

 

“The Aesop Tradition”
by Lawrence M. Wills
pp. 223-224, The Historical Jesus in Context

The Aesop tradition is important for the study of the Gospels for two reasons. First, Aesop’s fables can be formally compared to Jesus’ parables. Readers will recognize in some of the fables below individual motifs that re also found in the Gospel parables, as well as the use of ideal scenes that provoke reflection, even if the point to be taken from them is quite different. Second, the Life of Aesop is roughly contemporary with the Gospels and bears some remarkable similarities. These similarities may derive from the fact that the Life and the Gospels both dramatize the life and death of the ostracized hero, told in an age of prose novels and novelistic histories. (Later Christian tradition [Acts of Peter 24; Clement of Alexandria, The Instructor 3.1] even adds that Jesus was ugly, based on a reading of Isaiah 53:2.) The Life is about the same length as the Gospels, written in a relatively low style. Like the Gospels, it gives the sense of being a longer text composed of many originally independent episodes. If Jesus in the Gospels is more prophet than sage, and Aesop is more sage than prophet, the difference is minor compared with the overall similarity in structure:

  1. The protagonist has lowly beginnings but experiences a deity’s favor.
  2. The protagonist has a period of ministry with a salvific message.
  3. The protagonist is despised as a result of the message.
  4. Trumped-up charges involving blasphemy of the deity are brought forward.
  5. The protagonist is executed as a result.
  6. A cult of the protagonist is instituted.

Within some of the general similarities, we can perceive even closer parallels in the details. The Life of Aesop begins with a visitation by the goddess Isis and the bestowal of powers on Aesop, not unlike the scene of Jesus’ baptism at the beginning of the Gospels with the voice from heaven. At the end of the Life there is a geographic shift from Samos to Delphi, that is, from the periphery to the center of the worship of Apollo, just as there is a shift in the Gospels from the periphery of Galilee to the center at Jerusalem. Finally, at the transition at the end of these texts from ministry to a trial and passion, the process by which this shift occurs is also similar. In both groups of texts, conflicts that are punctuated by the use of a special kind of discourse arise. and this leads directly to the trial and execution of the protagonist […]

In addition, in all three texts the charge of “blasphemy” figures heavily in the conspiracy to execute the protagonist (Life of Aesop 132; Mark 14:64; John 10:33). This is true even though the charges of blasphemy n the three cases are not clearly stated and may be quite different. In Aesop, the protagonist is accused of being a temple robber; in Mark, blasphemy is often discussed by scholars in terms of Jewish law on this subject (Leviticus 24:16), but the charge seems to focus instead on Jesus’ implication that he himself is the coming Son of Man; in John the Jewish authorities tell Jesus that the charge of blasphemy arises because “you are making yourself God.” Blasphemy should thus be seen in its literary context as the “standard” false charge that separates the wise hero from his people. It is also roughly equivalent to the false charge of impiety leveled against Socrates. In Socrates’ case the charges were corrupting the young, neglecting the gods, and introducing new ideas (Plato, Apology).

The difference in tone between the Gospels and the Life of Aesop — urgent and demanding in the case of the Gospels, broadly satirical in the case of the Life of Aesop — can be attributed to the difference in the protagonists’ message. Jesus brings the good news of God’s plan of salvation at the end time, while Aesop the Cynic sage preaches a gospel of liberation from human convention and complacency and an awareness of the true nature of things. (Some scholars would argue that this places the Life of Aesop closer in religious outlook to the sayings source Q or the Gospel of Thomas. If that is the case, then the Life of Aesop is structurally closer to one part of the Gospel tradition, and thematically closer to another.) This overall literary similarity between the Life of Aesop and the Gospels indicates that the genre “gospel’ was not as unique as some have thought, and the particular motifs of the Gospels may owe more to the general background of reverence for philosophers than has been previously acknowledged.

My Flesh Is Meat Indeed
by Meredith J. C. Warren
pp. 54-55

In addition, Berenson Maclean points out the generic compatibility found by other scholars such s Lawrence Wills between the biography of the poet-hero and the Gospel of John in particular. Wills’ study argues that the novelistic pattern of the poet-hero’s life and death, including the poet’s antagonistic relationship with both the city and a deity, makes it appropriate for comparison with John’s structure. Specifically, Wills suggests that The Life of Aesop fits the same pattern as Mark and John; for instance, all three begin at the adulthood of the main character rather than with his birth and all three involve, close to the outset, an experience from heaven. Jesus’ ambivalent relationship with the Temple and oi ioudaioi also make John’s comparison to Life of Aesop appropriate.

Nagy’s work on the hero now becomes very relevant to the discussion: “by losing his identification with a person or group and by identifying himself with a god who takes his life in the process, the hero effects a purification by transferring impurity.” The expiatory understanding of Jesus’ death is apparent in early Christian works such s 1 Corinthians 15:3, Romans 3:25, 1 Corinthians 5:7, and Mark 10:45. For Wills, this further locates the early Christian understanding of Jesus in the context of the Greco-Roman hero, though he cautions that the paradigm of the hero is more variable than a single genre could contain. Gunnel Ekroth concurs with this point, saying, “a characteristic of heroes and hero cults is their heterogeneity.” Rather, for all three of the texts Wills examines, the paradigm of the hero is narrated in a way that establishes the cult even if not all the elements are present in any given text and with the reservation that there is no single paradigm that encompasses all of early Christianity’s understanding of Jesus’ life and death.

pp. 209-212

Nagy’s treatment of the Aesop tradition is significant for this study of John because in it, Nagy is careful to pint out the feedback loop present in the myth and ritual: Aesop’s death is the cause of the ritual institution he critiques while at the same time, his death in the narrative is caused by his critique. That is, everything is occurring at the level of narrative. It is this relationship that establishes the association of Aesop with Apollo. Thus Life of Aesop, too, reflects the understanding of the relationship between chosen human and god that is recorded in literature from the time of the epics to the turn of the millennium and after. In particular, the complicated cause-and-effect relationship between the antagonism, the ritual, and the divine identification found in Aesop as observed by Wills and Nagy is also found in the Greek romances. As I have illustrated above, this feedback loop of antagonism — sacrifice/cannibalism — divinity is a key manifestation of the type of relationship Nagy finds between heroes and gods in Homer’s epics. Likewise, I argue that this “antagonism in myth, symbiosis in cult” is also found in John.

Further, Wills notices similarities with the ways in which Jesus and Aesop die. In Life of Aesop, the Delphians put him to death in a way that makes him a pharmakos, a scapegoat. The act of putting a person to death is polluting, and the only way for this act to be purified is with the establishment of the hero’s cult. Wills’s outline of Jesus’ death shows the parallels between his sacrifice and the trope of heroic death in the Greco-Roman world. He points out that (likely pre-Pauline) formulas speak of Jesus or Christ as one who has died for the sins of others — in other words, as an expiation. In particular, Wills observes that the oracle uttered unwittingly by Caiaphas in John 11:50 makes a significant point of contact with the heroic death narratives, where frequently the “sacrifice of the hero is demanded or predicted by an oracle.” Caiaphas’s words, “It is expedient that one man should die for the people, so that the whole nation not perish,” make it clear to the readers (though ironically not to Caiaphas himself) that Jesus’ death is on behalf of the nation and can therefore be seen as expiatory. Jesus’ death at the request of certain factions of oi ioudaioi results in his worship by certain other factions of that same community.

Wills also observes that Jesus’ death in John occurs at the same time as sacrifice of the Passover lambs in the Jerusalem temple. As I have observed earlier, John’s Gospel avoids discussion of the expected Christian rituals of baptism and Eucharist and yet maintains a concern for the practice of ritual; Nagy, too, notices this feature in the heroic epics that are the focus of his work, the Odyssey and the Iliad. The fact that John shares his concern for right ritual practice with Homer suggests that the leap from literary death to cultic concern is indigenous. Likewise, John’s location of Jesus’ death at the time of that other, ordinary expiatory sacrifice further establishes Jesus’ death in a sacrificial, and therefore heroic, context. In other words, John’s concern with right ritual practice combined with the manner and timing of Jesus’ expiatory death, as prophesied by Caiaphas, creates an image of Jesus that shares significant points with the hero of the epic and with Aesop. Jesus’ and Aesop’s manners of death are therefore comparable; in this way, Jesus can also be viewed as heroic pharmakos.

Wills also points out that there seems to be striking similarities between Aesop’s characterization and Jesus’: the travelling distributor of pithy wisdom is persecuted and eventually executed as a kin of scapegoat/pharmakos. Clearly much of Jesus’ narrative follows a very similar pattern, especially, Wills observes, if we consider Jesus’ relationship to his own community, oi ioudaioi. It is especially appropriate for the current study that Wills there quotes Nagy:

By losing his identification with a person or group and identifying himself with a god who takes his life in the process, the hero effects a purification by transferring impurity. . . . In such a hero cult, god and hero are to be institutionalized as the respectively dominant and recessive members of an internal relationship.

This method of establishing such an eternal relationship can also be observed in the romance novels we have been discussing so far. In each case, the protagonists have experienced alienation from their communities. There are some differences worth articulating: whereas in the novels, the great beauty of the heroines gave them away as divine creatures, Aesop’s disfiguring ugliness is remarkable. John Winkler calls this satirical characterization of the main character the trope of the Grotesque Outsiders, one who is more capable of penetrating humanity’s veneer because of his or her marginal status. As such, this characterization marks the novel as satirical, but this, Wills is quick to point out, in no way effaces its usefulness in examining the finer points of the genre as a whole, especially since Leucippeand Cltophon might well fall into the satirical camp itself. The overarching theme of alienation and execution in both Aesop and John also plays out in the romances; Aesop’s satirical ugliness functions has a reversal of the goddesses’ beauty, but further, the trope of the outsider is clearly visible in all the examples. In short, while Wills compares just Aesop and John for his comparison, for the purposes of this project, where consumption is also a factor, it is significant that the romances also follow this narrative pattern in which the protagonists experience exile.

Paul and the Rise of the Slave
by K. Edwin Bryant
pp. 57-58

I also employ The Life of Aesop as a resource for conceptualizing how Paul’s construction of messianic life reclaimed slaves from the deadening violence imposed on conquered peoples. This investigation makes full use of Aesop as a hero who, in grotesque disguise, utters critical truths and contests the legal and political definitions imposed on slaves. Aesop is a common man’s Socrates who “cloaked his wisdom in foolishness.” We suggest that Rom 6:12-23 demonstrates how slaves of Messiah Jesus re reclaimed from the sinful domination of Empire, and subsequently illustrates how Paul’s polemical construction of messianic life provides eschatological comfort to the “vanquished.” Paul’s language in Rom 6:12-23 has more in common with the theatrical representations of slavery in the mine, than with the elite philosophical discourses of wisdom. Locating Paul’s description of himself as a Slave of Messiah Jesus in the language of comedy, jest, and the mime maybe controversial. Nevertheless, it seems clear that Paul’s description of himself as a Slave of Messiah Jesus was formulated from a grotesque perspective, in response to violence, and to facilitate an upsurge of the human spirit that challenged slaves to rise above the profane and juridical conditions imposed upon them. […]

The life of Aesop provides suggestive parallels between Aesop’s fables and Paul’s characterization of his calling as that of a slave, particularly in the ways that both resisted and contested power relationships. That Aesop is presented as a hero who is ugly, deformed, and disabled contests the Hellenic picture of wisdom and intellect. The Life of Aesop frequently portrays Aesop’s wisdom as disconcerting elite persons and challenging them as subjects. Yet, at times, Aesop is unable to transcend his grotesque appearance. On other occasions, Aesop consciously employs his wit and ingenuity to create anxiety in members of his master’s social class. The Life of Aesop is polemical in that Aesop ruptures the legal and social definitions of the slave as a subject, and annuls the impact of the power imposed upon him. Xanthus’ students marvel as to how Aesop’s intellect is greater than their professor’s. That Aesop constantly brought about a reversal of expectations indicates that the problems associated with his grotesque appearance were intermittent. Nevertheless, it would have been difficult for most slaves to subvert the continuum of power without the help of a construct like Paul’s ethic of messianic life. […]

pp. 65-66

It may be that the grotesqueness of The Life of Aesop, and the positive valuation of the slave as a subject, will infuriate the “modern bourgeois readers.” Such a reading will undoubtedly elicit scandalous remarks and reactions. In contrast to the bourgeois reactions, the staging of Aesop’s many reversals “provide the only defense, and occasional revenge, for those who routinely suffered maltreatment.” Now let us imagine the implications for slaves in Rome, if they too, had an encounter with the divine and awakened to a new way to conceptualize their existence. This analysis does not suggest that Paul’s readers had access to The Life of Aesop, but does highlight the fact that a contemporary non-Christian source portrayed slaves with the capability to transcend power relationships; one can only imagine how Roman slaves could replicate the same conditions by participating in the death of Messiah Jesus through baptism. The Life of Aesop presents a literary source contemporary with Paul that, in a similar way, challenges slaves to subvert how institutions and power structures imposed identity on slaves as subjects. Paul’s theological concept of identity formation subverts how the Empire imposed identity on subjects. Such a reading also asserts that Paul’s description of himself as a Slave of Messiah Jesus resonates with aspects of the slave Aesop’s identity that had been silenced by conquest. The Life of Aesop suggests how Paul’s polemical construction of messianic identity may have facilitated a role reversal that generated the acceptance of one’s new calling as a Slave of Messiah Jesus. On the one hand, this reversal of fortune annuls the negative implications of social cohesion and formation. On the other hand, we suggest that Paul’s polemical construction of messianic life contributed to an upsurge of the human spirit.

Second, the reclamation of identity generated the courage for slaves to resist aspects of the identity that Roman rule imposed on conquered peoples. After receiving his gifts from Isis, Aesop became aware of the maltreatment of slaves and contested how the propertied class exploited the ambiguities of slavery. Aesop was also conscious of how Xanthus attempted to exploit his intellect. In ways similar to the Life of Aesop, Paul’s description of himself as a slave of Messiah Jesus facilitated an awakening of Christian identity. The final episode in The Life of Aesop reveals Aesop’s willingness to be hailed by the deity in order to thwart the attempt of the men of Delphi’s to kill him. Instead, Aesop accomplishes his own fate to prevent dying at the hands of moral slaves. That Paul describes himself as a Slave of Messiah Jesus serves as an invitation to auditors who were slaves to realize their calling by participating in the death of Messiah Jesus. We posit that the grotesque perspective generated the grammar required for urban slaves to imagine an existence apart from their legal condition.

p. 76

To contest the ways that dominium ideology facilitated violence required slaves to employ a grammar of resistance that permitted them to subvert the identity that Rome sought to impose on its subjects. Our exploration of The Life of Aesop revealed a representation of a slave who possessed the intellectual prowess to negotiate, and in some ways transcend violence, and subvert how masters understood the legal and political definitions of the slave as subject. Thus, The Life of Aesop provides a helpful resource for appreciating the language of Paul’s letters, at the same time that it illustrates how slaves tried to imagine an existence apart from the identity that Rome imposed upon them. In this context, we may form an impression of how Paul’s description of himself as a Slave of Messiah Jesus was understood by members of urban slave congregations. We propose that Paul crafted Rom 6:12-23 to convince Slaves of Messiah Jesus, who were restricted to conditions similar to modern ghettos, that they might awaken to a new messianic life. Thus, Paul’s description of himself as a Slave of Messiah Jesus functioned to reclaim slaves from the negative implications of subjectivity and generated a positive valuation of the slave as subject.

p. 200

Turning now to Paul, it is impressive how closely Paul’s requirements for slave participation in messianic identity parallel Aesop’s decision to take his own life rather than allowing the men of Delphi to force a meaningless death upon him. Paul’s exhortation to slaves in the “now” time signals that the only way to “rise” from the profane verdict assigned to slaves involved the willingness to share in the death of Messiah Jesus — only then can one generate a new meaning for life that transcends the imposition of Rome’s demonic rule. Paul’s repeated use of the word vuv (now, present time) in Rom 6:19, 21, and 22 confirms our exegesis of Rom 6:18-20. The process of interpelation awakened slaves to a new messianic consciousness that facilitated an awareness of how humiliation, torture, and violence were employed to reinforce the subjectivity of slaves as subjects. Thus, the positioning of “now” in Rom 6:19-23 announces an end to the domination, humiliation, and torture produced in a context of shame. Paul’s reference to the “now time” of salvation signals that slaves encountered “new ethos that had ethical and theological implications.” Roman Imperial ideology assigned slaves as weapons of wrongdoing: slaves can now participate in community with a “messianic consciousness.” Based on Paul’s use of […], we can say that slaves who participate in messianic community are able to reimagine their existence in positive ways without shame (cf. Rom 1:16).