Too Much Christ, Not Enough Jesus

Recently, a friend (also a former priest) allowed me to read a master’s dissertation he wrote while in Rome 40 years ago. As a 34-year-old Kiltegan missionary with experience in Africa, my friend (now in his early 70s) was exploring the meaning of the term “conversion.” It was a query, I suspect, sparked by his personal struggle with questions raised by his own discomfort with missionary work aimed at converting “pagan” Africans to Christianity.

Reading my friend’s dissertation recalled my own similar struggles as a member of the Catholic missionary group, the Society of St. Columban. Like the Kiltegans, the Columbans emerged from Ireland in the first half of the 20th century. My group’s original work was converting Chinese rather than Africans. As I was completing my graduate studies in Rome, I too had my own doubts about the Columbans’ project.

So, for me reading my friend’s work was a trip down memory lane. His thesis addressed the work of theologians I remember admiring during the late 1960s.

I’m talking about the revered thinkers Bernard Lonergan, Karl Rahner, and a lesser-known Jesuit theologian, William Lynch. I recall so well puzzling over their dense prose as it tried to make sense of the Judeo-Christian tradition in the light of the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965). Who was Jesus, they asked, and what was his relationship to the “modern world?” As I said, my friend’s question to them was about their understanding of the term “conversion?”

Lonergan’s, Rahner’s, and Lynch’s answers to such questions revealed their developed world perspectives. Lonergan was a Canadian; Rahner a German; Lynch, an American. All three were heavily influenced by existentialist and Heideggerian philosophy that at the time contrasted so refreshingly with the Thomistic approach of pre-conciliar theology that heavily relied on Thomas Aquinas and medieval scholastic philosophy. 

However, I (and theologians in general, including, I presume, my friend) have long since moved beyond the impenetrable, abstract, thought of the three theologians in question. Influenced by Jesus scholarship and by liberation theology, the reflections of today’s scholars are much more biblically and historically grounded – much more reliant on concrete social analysis than on existential speculation.

Let me try to show what I mean.

Lonergan, Rahner & Lynch

Without venturing too far into the deeper weeds of their relevant speculations, here’s how Lonergan, Rahner and Lynch approach the question of conversion:

  • Lonergan: Conversion is acceptance of truth rather than the world’s falsehoods. Its end point is awakening from an uncomprehending slumber. Its heightened consciousness yields a changed attitude towards the problem of evil, which is ultimately theological before the world’s otherwise incomprehensible tragedies. Conversion emerges from one’s unique experience of God which is analogous to falling in love. It is not rational; it is not dependent on argument. Conversion simply happens as a gift from God to one inexplicably grasped by the reality of Christ crucified, dead, and risen.
  • Rahner: Conversion is the owning of one’s human nature which is absolute openness (potentia obedientialis) to ultimate reality (aka “God”). Conversion is the process of becoming receptive to what the world discloses about itself against the backdrop of the Ground of Being.  That receptivity is modeled in the person of Jesus the Christ.  
  • Lynch: Conversion represents a radically changed way of experiencing the world. The world of the convert revolves around a different center than it does for the unconverted. He or she perceives and embraces the fact that all of creation is driven by eros – by the basic life-force that informs everything that is. For Lynch, Jesus understood that fact and because of living its truth, represents the ultimate version of humanity. He reveals to human beings who they are.

All these insights are profound and helpful to academics seeking a deeper understanding of the term conversion. And, as I earlier indicated, I once found them to represent the apex of theological reflection. I agreed, that (1) human beings are basically asleep to life’s deeper dimensions, (2) conversion entails awakening and (3) finally embracing a shared human nature as fundamental openness to Ultimate Reality that some call “God.” (3) Accepting that reality involves perceiving the Life Force (eros) that informs and unites all of creation. (4) Such perception gives the lives of the converted a new center not shared by “the world,” but (5) embodied instead in the person of Jesus the Christ crucified, dead, and resurrected.

That’s what I once believed. But that was before I encountered Jesus-scholarship and liberation theology. It was before (precisely as a Global South advocate) I took seriously the imperative to change the world rather than explain it to intellectuals.

Jesus Scholarship & Liberation Theology

Jesus-scholarship and liberation theology agree that conversion involves awakening to a reality other than that generally accepted by “the wisdom of the world.” But it understands awakening as development of class consciousness. Theological awakening moves the center of reflection from imperial locations such as Rome, Canada, Germany, and the U.S. to the peripheries of neo-colonies and the slums of Sao Paulo, Managua, and Mexico City.  

For liberation theologians, reality is not fundamentally theological or philosophical, but historical, economic, political, and social. It has been created by phenomena that Raul Peck says summarize the last 500 years of western history. Three words, he tells us, encapsulate it all – civilization (i.e., white supremacy), colonialism, and extermination. Those terms and the bloodstained reality they represent rather than abstract theological speculation, summarize the real problem of evil. That problem is concrete, material, and historical, not primarily theological. It is not mysterious, philosophical, or even theological.

Accordingly, liberation theology’s reflections start with the real world of endemic poverty, climate change, and threat of nuclear war. Closer to home, they begin in biblical circles where poor slum dwellers ask why there’s no electricity or plumbing – why their children are threatened by gang members and drug dealers. Only as a second step does theological reflection enter the picture. In reading the Gospels, the poor (not developed world theologians) discover the fact that Jesus and his community faced problems similar to their own. In the process, they find new relevance in the narratives of Jesus’ words and deeds.

This leads to a third step in liberation theology’s “hermeneutical circle” – planning to address community problems and to the identification and assignment of specific tasks to members of the reflection group in question. Will we demonstrate in front of city hall? Who will contact the mayor? What about community policing?

Answering and acting on questions like those represent the third step in liberation theology’s circle of interpretation. They are a form of reinsertion into community life. That reengagement then begins the circle’s dynamic all over again.

In summary then, liberation theology begins with social analysis that defines the context of those who (regardless of their attitudes towards theology) would not merely understand the world but are intent on transforming it in the direction of social justice. That by the way is the purpose of liberation theology itself – highlighting the specifically biblical stories whose power can change the world. Accordingly, liberation theology is reflection on the following of Christ from the standpoint of the world’s poor and oppressed who are committed to the collective improvement of their lives economically, politically, socially, and spiritually.

And this is where Jesus enters the reflective process in ways that traditional theologians (even like Lonergan, Rahner, and Lynch) end up avoiding. For liberation theologians, Jesus is not merely crucified, dead, and risen. He also had a life (traditional theology’s “excluded middle”) including actual words and deeds before the eventuation of those culminating events.

In other words, Jesus is not primarily the transcendent Universal Christ. He is an historical figure who (as William Lynch correctly has it) relocates the center of the world and history. However, as just seen, he moves that center from the privileged terrain of Rome or the United States to their imperialized provinces and colonies. For liberation theology, kings and emperors are not the center of history, but people like the construction worker from Nazareth. That’s the astounding revelation of Jesus. It turns one’s understanding of the world upside-down.

Put still otherwise, (according to biblical stories whether considered historical or fictional) Jesus represents God’s unlooked-for incarnation in the earth’s wretched. He was the son of an unwed teenage mother, an infant refugee from infanticide, an asylum seeker in Egypt, an excommunicate from his religious tribe, a friend of drunks and street walkers, and a victim of torture and capital punishment precisely for opposing Rome’s colonial control of Palestine.

Conclusion   

Yes, I remember admiring the likes of Lonergan, Rahner, and Lynch. But they no longer speak to me. Their abstract words, tortured existential questions, and impenetrable grammar obscure the salvific reality so easily accessible and fascinating in the character of Jesus belonging to the Gospel stories – and to those impoverished and oppressed by what bell hooks calls the white supremacist, imperialist, capitalist patriarchy.

Unfortunately, however, the world and its theologians have always been reluctant to recognize that figure for what he was. The change he requires is too drastic. It would mean taking sides with the wretched of the earth.

Instead, theologians even like Lonergan, Rahner, and Lynch have preferred to focus on Christ crucified, dead and resurrected without the biblical narrative of the construction worker’s words and deeds that stand 180 degrees opposite truths taken for granted in the world’s imperial centers.

But it is precisely that down-to-earth Jesus that our world today needs more than an abstract Universal Christ. Conversion to that despised and rejected messiah means rejecting identification with empire’s pretensions and goals. It means taking to the streets with the  Sunrise and Black Lives Matter movements. It means running the risk of sharing with Jesus his own fate as a victim of arrest, torture, and even capital punishment.

That’s what Jesus meant by urging his followers to take up the cross and follow him.  

Can Exterrestrials Rescue Us from Religious Enslavement?

If you’re like many who read these pages, you might be skeptical about religion and its claims. You’re put off by apparently childish beliefs in a God who according to the teachings of Jesus is a loving parent, but who also ends up committing and ordering acts (like Noah’s flood and military slaughters) that can only be described as immoral and even genocidal.

Yet, if you’re like me, you also recognize in ancient biblical traditions powerful sources of wisdom and inspiration for transforming the world. I’m talking about biblical interpretations by Jesus himself, by the prophets, and their more recent embodiments such as Martin Luther King, Dorothy Day, William Barber II and Liz Theoharis. You’re probably loathe to throw out the baby represented by the heroes just mentioned with the bathwater of demeaning beliefs unworthy of adults concerned with peace, justice and saving our planet from the ravages of climate change and nuclear war.

If you fall into either category, I recommend that you read Escaping from Eden: does Genesis teach that the human race was created by God or engineered by ETs? It is authored by Anglican priest and scholar Paul Anthony Wallis. The book vividly describes the religious dynamic we’re all used to with its tendencies to enslave and stunt human growth on the one hand and to liberate and call us to our higher selves on the other.

It also offers cogent exegeses of familiar Genesis stories that centralize an unfamiliar theogony that involves us all.

Let me explain.

Escaping Eden 

Perhaps shockingly to most, Wallis’ basic thesis is that the Eden and subsequent stories in the first eleven chapters of Genesis are not about God at all. Instead as the book’s full title suggests, many of the tales describe extraterrestrial aliens (ETs) and their interactions with early humans.  For Wallis, recognizing the aliens hidden in plain sight within the Genesis myths and legends can help liberate us from powerful contemporary actors who use religion to infantilize and enslave the rest of us.

Does all that sound too far out? Wallis insists that it shouldn’t. In fact, he argues, his observations are grounded in sound, long-standing biblical scholarship that has puzzled over and/or ignored references to plural gods in a text ostensibly promoting monotheism.

On top of this, Wallis emphasizes the fact that we humans live (and always have) in a universe populated by many human-like species. This is attested to by worldwide myths and stories found among humans everywhere – e.g., in Sumerian cuneiform tablets, in Greek and Roman mythology, in the Popol Vuh, and in the Judeo-Christian Bible. It is also verified by innumerable “close encounters” throughout history, by science-fiction writers like Erich von Daniken in his Chariots of the Gods, as well as by NASA astronauts, the U.S. government and even by the Vatican itself.

More to Wallis’ point, the Bible is an especially noteworthy source attesting to the existence of extraterrestrial agents who visit the earth and interact with human beings. Some of the ETs help humans; others attempt to enslave them. 

Though commonly overlooked as such, (and as we’ll see below) interactions with ETs are found in the myths involving the First Man and the First Woman, in the legends of Abraham and Sarah, of Sodom and Gomorrah and elsewhere. They are also found in the prophetic books of Ezekiel and Elijah as well as in Christian Testament conception stories of John the Baptist and Jesus himself. Additionally, they are suggested in “apocalyptic” literature found throughout the Bible.

In all these accounts, one finds tales not only of gods, angels, monsters, and devils, but of giants so large that they make humans feel like grasshoppers, of agents with extraordinarily long lives, of divine beings of immense physical attraction begetting exceptional children with human partners, and of vehicles that we today would call UFOs.

For Wallis, the key to perceiving such overlooked realities is found in accurately translating the plural Hebrew term Elohim which is centralized in the familiar creation myths of Genesis. Normally, this term has been translated simply as “God.”

However, Wallis points out, this fatal mistranslation leads to insoluble problems linked to monotheism (e.g., why is Elohim plural in a monotheistic text?), and to moral quandaries where a biblical God commits and orders genocidal acts of extreme cruelty.  

Actually, Wallis explains Elohim’s plural form is correctly translated not as “God” or even “gods,” but as “Sky People,” the “Powerful Ones,” or the “Engineers.” Elohim refers to extraterrestrials who rescue an already created world rather than constitute it from scratch. Among them is that minor entity called “Yahweh.” Eventually, the Mosaic tradition identifies him as the one and only god of the Hebrew people.

In developing these ideas, Wallis shows that a close reading of the first chapter of Genesis reveals that the Hebrew Bible contains no account of the world’s creation at all. Instead, in what is often taken as a creation myth, the earth and seas already exist as does “darkness” which assumes the existence of a contrasting sun and/or moon and stars.  

This leads Wallis to conclude that Genesis’ ancient “creation story” is really about a recovery or planetary reset following some sort of extinction level event that geologists tell us occurred following the last ice age, or the collision of earth and a meteor, and/or a planetwide flood. According to this interpretation, the tale in Genesis describes how “Powerful Ones” (Elohim) – extraterrestrials – used their extraordinary powers to restore order to a planet suffering from a post-traumatic stress syndrome.

Genesis Retold

To show what I mean, here how Wallis retells the Genesis story:

Following a planetary catastrophe, the earth remained shrouded in darkness, empty, barren and covered in water. In response, Spirit-Beings, the Powerful Ones (Elohim) from beyond the earth came to its rescue. They hovered over the planet’s watery surface dissipating its darkness. Soon light manifested itself as the sun, moon, and stars once again became visible.

Next the Powerful Ones separated the earth’s waters to create saltwater seas, freshwater rivers and habitable land. Vegetation, fish, birds, and animals returned to fill the air, land, and seas.

Within a plain called Eden the Sky People created an enclosed safety zone and filled it with animal and botanical life. In the soil of the plain near the Tigris and Euphrates, precious mineral deposits, including high grade gold also came to light.

Using the elements of the earth to make clay, the Engineers next fashioned Earth Creatures (Adam) to look like their makers. Their bodies lay silent and motionless until the Powerful Ones breathed spirit into them.

Once animated the new humans were put to work in the enclosed zone. They ate a vegan diet and lived a subsistence lives in harmony with the animals.

Gradually the Powerful Ones noticed that the humans were depressed. All the other animal species were male and female. The humans needed such companionship too. So, the Powerful Ones generated females of the species from the asexual Earth Creatures’ bodies. As male and female, human society was then poised to begin its journey.

Then one day the humans found themselves in conversation with a Sky Person known as “the Snake.” He walked upright and had arms and legs. The helpful Snake showed the humans how they might achieve a higher level of consciousness. The change would raise their understanding and self-awareness and improve the quality of their lives. Not surprisingly, the humans accepted the Snake’s offer. Here, the female of the species took the lead. The resulting upgrade brought with it moral conscience and sexual awareness. Humans began to wear clothes and gender roles emerged. With the first childbirths, human society began to take form.

All of this incited a long-lasting conflict among the Powerful Ones. Some of them were afraid that the newly empowered humans might become too independent. As punishment for breaking rank by effecting an unauthorized human upgrade, the Snake Sky Person was shorn of its limbs and forced to eat the other Powerful Ones’ dust.

For their parts, the male and the female humans faced parallel repercussions. The Engineers locked them out of the enclosed zone and forced the humans to fend for themselves in the wild, untamed country of Eden. There the humans continued to produce children. However, the land of Eden had not been prepared or cultivated for this eventuality. Consequently, circumstances forced the humans to work hard just to provide for their families.

In addition, exiled from the enclosed area, the humans no longer enjoyed access to the healing plants which before had cured their every injury and ailment. Denied such cures the humans began to die.

As human society grew and became harder to manage, the Council of Powerful Ones decided that the human beings were living too long and took a decision to limit the humans’ lifespans. Additionally, troubling news of abductions of human females and resultant hybridization by some Powerful Ones (bnei Elohim, sons of the Powerful Ones) also reached the ears of the Council. This was not what they had intended. After a period of intense debate, a final solution was reached. Earth was to be wiped clean of the human menace by means of a massive flood.

But not all the Powerful Ones concurred. Along with a warning about the impending flood, the dissenters gave a man called Noah instructions about constructing a rescue vessel, sealing his family inside (together with a stock of plants and animals to eventually reseed flora and fauna) and re-booting the human population with the DNA of Noah’s extended family. Then came the deluge.

In the aftermath of the flood, as human society re-expanded, the people migrated east of Eden. When they reached the Shinar Plain, Mesopotamia – the home of Sumeria and Babylonia – they settled and built a huge tower – as a gateway between the people and the Powerful Ones, a means of reaching the heavens from Earth.

However, when some members of the Council observed the project, they were deeply disturbed. Old fears resurfaced about humans usurping the power of their betters. Another brutal response was called for. Accordingly, the Sky People used their great powers to arrest the development of human civilization. They did this by taking from the humans the language which had united them, confusing their ability to speak so that the humans would no longer be able to communicate with one another and operate as a single society.

Two Types of Biblical Aliens

The tale just reviewed reveals a powerful internecine “Battle of the Elite” hidden in the Genesis accounts and continues to our day. It pits some Powerful Ones (Elohim) who were benevolent towards the emerging race of humans against other Sky People who sought to keep humans subordinate and unconscious.

In the biblical stories benevolent Powerful Ones:

  • Reconstitute planet earth after the unprecedented cataclysm referenced above
  • Create earth creatures who physically resemble their creators
  • Divide the earth creatures into male and female to relieve their creatures’ loneliness
  • Provide a safe zone where humans live in the company of their powerful mentors and where food, shelter, and healing plants are provided.
  • Instruct the earth creatures (through a Powerful One called “the Snake”) about how to achieve moral consciousness
  • Intervene to save at least some humans from an approaching universal deluge
  • And eventually in the deified Powerful One, Yahweh, liberate people enslaved by the Pharaohs of Egypt.

Meanwhile, more malevolent Sky People:

  • Take measures to keep the earth creatures subservient
  • By forbidding humans from attaining moral consciousness
  • Punishing them for doing so by inflicting painful childbirth experiences on their women and harsh labor upon men, and by driving both women and men out of their paradisical safe zone, thus depriving them of food and healing plants, while consequently introducing sickness, shortened lives, and death
  • Punishing the Snake (the humans’ moral mentor) by amputating its arms and legs
  • Sending a universal flood
  • Preventing humans from cooperating with one another by eliminating their universally understood common language
  • Routinely ordering humans to commit genocide on the Powerful Ones’ enemies

Conclusion

None of this is to say that the stories Wallis examines should be taken literally, though he gives an impression of doing so. My own tendency is to continue treating the stories Wallis examines as myth and legend and as such to mine them for the extremely rich meaning they contain.

However literal or not, the tales in question serve to highlight the facts that:

  • We do exist in a populated universe
  • Religious traditions across the planet are strangely unanimous in recording close encounters with extraterrestrial entities
  • Earthly elites (emperors, kings, popes, and priests) have typically used such records to instill fear within and enslave their subjects
  • Those same powerful agents have ignored and obscured accounts with ETs that empower non-elites by inspiring them to rebel against their enslaving masters

In any case, Paul Anthony Wallis’ book calls us to re-examine our prejudices about the biblical tradition, whatever they might be. He suggests that it is more powerful and relevant to our postmodern world than we’ve been led to believe.

Book Review: The Mists of Arltunga

Two years ago, my good friend from Berea, Kentucky, Roger Jones published a thought-provoking extended parable about the current human condition shaped by post-modern capitalism. It’s a wonderfully insightful and artistically composed novel called The Mists of Arltunga. I highly recommend it.

Set In a mining camp (Arltunga) in central Australia 100 years ago, the story presciently portrays a world so polluted by chemical industries that the companies in question mine the foul-smelling air itself. They do so with glider air ships that draw behind them fine nets to capture jelly-like discharges from the open-pit mines below.

Of course, the putrid mists are also ingested by the mine workers whose nostrils and lungs end up hosting the foul emissions. They suffer and die accordingly.

But none of this matters to the chemical company’s absentee owner, nor to the mine overseer. The overriding concern of both is meeting production goals. To achieve those ends, the overseer browbeats his workers, alternatively threatens and sweet-talks them, punishes their shortcomings, and offers meaningless incentives. Worse still, he proves willing to kill troublemakers directly by using his pistol and covertly by provoking a fatal landslide by means of dynamite. He colludes with a competitor for purposes of controlling the workforces of both companies and of mutually enriching themselves.

In short, The Mists of Arltunga presents its mesmerized readers with a tale of unfettered capitalism that is both cautionary and actual.

But of course, (as in the real world) the most rebellious among the story’s exploited mineworkers take none of this lying down. Though they find themselves caught in a web of exploitation, they cannot initially free themselves. They’re impotent because employment in the mine represents their only source of sustenance without which they’d starve to death. Though the mine’s glider pilots can soar above it all for hours each day, they must eventually return to earth to eat the camp’s miserable gruel, turnips and thin soup. Eagles by day (an important metaphor in the book), they’re reduced to precariat slaves when they return to earth.

All of this holds true till one day a zeppelin from Perth crash lands with a deafening explosion and searing ball of flame near the mine site. All the vessel’s crew and passengers perish, except for the burnt and wounded daughter of Arltunga’s absentee owner. She’s saved by one of the mine’s glider-pilots who works in Arltunga alongside his father and younger brother. Unaware of the “sheila’s” true identity, both brothers immediately fall in love with her.

The girl, however, maintains a friendly but aloof distance from the pair. Under threat from the mine overseer, she is forced to conceal her true identity. She blends into the working community proving herself to be invaluable as a gardener and infirmary caregiver. Most surprisingly of all, she reveals herself as a competent glider pilot capable of flying with the best of the men.

A turning point comes when the camp overseer’s collusions with a competing mine operation come to light. It all involves the earlier-mentioned landslide, the resulting near-death experience of the mine owner’s daughter, and her abduction according to the plan of Arltunga’s mine overseer – again, the only character aware of the girl’s real name.

All of this catalyzes worker rebellion led by the story’s love-struck brothers. The climax involves a thrilling glider chase, another crash landing, and a surprising disclosure of hidden identities.

In the end, the revelations concluding The Mists of Arltunga point towards a mythic, parable-like and robust affirmation of the unity of the entire human family. They offer hope that acknowledgment of that single household can unite bosses and workers even altering the behavior of greedy absentee proprietors.

Do yourself a favor. Read Roger Jones’ splendid, hopeful and critical parable. Be inspired accordingly.  

What Joe Biden Should Learn from Obama’s Autobiography: Listen to Jeremiah Wright

I’ve just finished Barack Obama’s remarkable autobiography, A Promised Land. Its biblical title invites reflection about the theological orientation and resulting policies of the man the book portrays. By his own testimony, that direction was originally set by Jeremiah A. Wright, Mr. Obama’s former pastor at Trinity United Church of Christ on Chicago’s South Side.

James Cone, the father of Black liberation theology has described Dr. Wright as Black liberation theology’s foremost contemporary exponent. So, in Mr. Obama, the United States experienced not only its first Black president, but its first chief executive to have been shaped spiritually by liberation theology.

With all of that in mind, the point of the following review of The Promised Land will be that had Mr. Obama employed what he learned at the feet of Jeremiah Wright, his policies would have been markedly different from their actual forms. Practically speaking, they would have more resembled those of Franklin Delano Roosevelt than a continuation of the neoliberal legacy of Bill Clinton. They would have set the country on a profoundly different and more widely beneficial trajectory from the one we are currently following.

Professed devout Catholic, Joe Biden, should take note. The radical biblical tradition espoused not only by Wright and Cone, but by King and William Barber – i.e., championed by thought leaders among Mr. Biden’s most crucial constituents – won’t support a return to “normalcy.” It requires policies that prioritize the needs not of Wall Street, but of the poor. It demands departure from Barack Obama’s business as usual.     

Liberation Theology

And that brings me precisely to liberation theology.

In case you’ve forgotten, liberation theology is reflection on the following of Yeshua the Christ from the viewpoint of the poor and oppressed committed to improving their collective life economically, politically, socially, and spiritually.

Its Judeo-Christian orientation is about political and economic starting points and end points.

Sociologically speaking, it begins (as OpEdNews’ Rob Kall would say) from the “bottom up.” In the case of the Jewish tradition, it starts with the liberation of slaves in Egypt by a Life-Force they called “Yahweh.” It ends with Yahweh’s pledge to give the enslaved (as Mr. Obama’s book title reminds us) “A Promised Land.”

In its Christian form, the tradition starts with a poor houseless child who grows into a prophet. He promises dispossessed victims of the Roman Empire the end point of “the kingdom of God.” By this he meant a world where God is king instead of Caesar – a world with room for everyone. For liberation theology, that’s the North Star – the guiding vision meant to shape all of life, economically, politically, socially, and spiritually – a world where no one is excluded or marginalized

Following that star, liberation theology emphasizes what the Christian Testament’s Paul of Tarsus calls “the wisdom of God” contrasted sharply with “the wisdom of the world” (I Cor. 2: 1-16).  In modern terms, the wisdom of the world is trickle-down; it begins with the well-off. It holds that if the wealthy prosper, the tide that lifts their luxury yachts will lift all boats. By contrast, God’s bottom-up wisdom begins with the well-being of the poor.

Unfortunately, the policies, Mr. Obama describes in A Promised Land ended up reflecting the former over the latter.     

Jeremiah Wright’s Influence on Mr. Obama

That reflection contrasts dramatically with what scandalized America’s right wing when it first encountered Jeremiah Wright’s liberation theology. The discovery occurred soon after they realized that Barack and Michelle Obama not only were parishioners of a fiercely radical black pastor, but that he had officiated at their wedding (A Promised Land 23).

That sent conservatives scurrying to unearth evidence of Wright’s (and by extension Obama’s) unacceptably extreme viewpoints. In fact, what their excavations uncovered nearly terminated Mr. Obama’s political ambitions (140).

That’s because (true to liberation theology’s form) Wright’s words explicitly foregrounded the experience of the poor as victims of what he called U.S. terrorism. His sermons often traced it from the genocide of Native Americans, through the enslavement of Africans, to Middle Eastern policies that, he said, invited the tragic events of 9/11/2001. It led him to refer to his country as the “USA of KKK,” and to conclude, “Not God bless America,” but “God damn America” (140).

Despite all of that, and notwithstanding his eventual repudiation of his former pastor, President Obama’s testifies in A Promised Land that Rev. Wright remained an important part of his consciousness (142).  And so, throughout his narrative, the former chief executive gives indications of critical truths often reminiscent those voiced (albeit more forcefully) by his one-time pastor. For instance, Mr. Obama recalls that:

Personally

  • As part of a generation willing to question the U.S. government (456), he frequently found Wright’s black liberation theology inspiring and as channeling the understandable rage of black people in general (119, 141).
  • Not only did Rev. Wright’s disturbing insights become part of his consciousness, but so did the radical thought of W.E.B. Dubois, Martin Luther King, John Lewis, Bob Moses, Fannie Lou Hamer and Diane Nash (11) – along with those of the Hindu Mahatma Gandhi and the belatedly revered socialist, Nelson Mandela (598).
  • He realized that despite the convictions of many liberals, America’s race problems are far from being solved (128).
  • He felt impatient with having to soften blunt truths that whites find disturbing (121).
  • He himself had often experienced police harassment (395).

Internationally

  • He found sympathy with the assessment of critics like Wright that America’s “. . . ideals have always been secondary to conquest and subjugation, a racial caste system and rapacious capitalism, and that to pretend otherwise is to be complicit in a game that was rigged from the start” (xv).
  • In fact, after World War II, the U.S. had “. . . bent global institutions to serve Cold War imperatives or ignored them altogether . . . meddled in the affairs of other countries, sometimes with disastrous results;” and its “. . . actions often contradicted the ideals of democracy, self-determination and human rights. . .” (329).
  • America’s war in Vietnam was no less brutal than the Soviet Union’s repression of Hungary (469).
  • The criminal U.S.-supported Shah of Iran and his feared SAVAK secret police were typical of murderous client regimes supported by America in the Global South following World War II (310, 450-1).
  • The Shah’s regime was part of U.S. Mideast policy that needlessly alienated Muslims throughout the world. That policy tolerated corruption and repression in the region and routinely humiliated Palestinians (358).
  • China represents an attractive alternative (to the United States’) model for the developing world (481).
  • That’s true especially after so many Global South countries embraced the illusory “wisdom” of the Washington Neoliberal Consensus and thus followed America over a fatal precipice (330).

Obama’s Repudiation of Wright (and radical change)

Despite such insights, Mr. Obama’s presidential ambitions not only made it necessary for him to repudiate Jeremiah Wright, but evidently to adopt a series of policies that contradicted the tenets of liberation theology. His policies prioritized the welfare of the rich over those of the working class and poor. Accordingly, the president ends up admitting that:

  • Because of the financial crisis, he did not follow through on his campaign promises to U.S. workers (177).
  • For him, the financial markets (presumably as opposed to wage earners) were the only audience that really mattered (304).
  • His interventions alone were responsible for saving bankers from wage earners’ justified anger and retaliation (297).
  • Resulting white working-class anger, e.g., in Pennsylvania about jobs lost through such neoliberal policies, was justified (144).
  • In retrospect, bank nationalization and prosecution of crooked bankers might have been a better solution to the Crisis of 2008 than the bailouts favored by his economic team (280, 296, 305). 
  • By avoiding that solution and bowing to bankers’ interests, Obama consciously missed a once-in-a-generation chance to reengineer the overall economy in a bottom-up way reminiscent of FDR’s New Deal (304).
  • He could have done so, because of his 70% approval rating coupled with the super majority he possessed in the Congress at the outset of his first term (225, 378, 243).

Nowhere in his autobiography does Mr. Obama reveal his repudiation of Wright’s outspokenness than in the case of the Deepwater Horizon oil tragedy of 2010. There, BP Oil had unleashed the most devastating oil spill in the history of offshore drilling. It lasted for 87 days and pumped out into the ocean at least 20,000 (and possibly 50,000) barrels of oil daily (569).

As time wore on and scientists and engineers scrambled to cap the leaks, Republicans increasingly blamed the president for the failure to do so. They even referred to it as “Obama’s Katrina” (569).

What Mr. Obama’s best instincts told him to say in response was reminiscent of Wright’s candor – this time in favor of perhaps the earth’s most oppressed being, Mother Earth Herself. According to the former president, he should have said:

“. . . the only way to truly guarantee that we didn’t have another catastrophic oil spill in the future was to stop drilling entirely; but that wasn’t going to happen because at the end of the day we Americans loved our cheap gas and big cars more than we cared about the environment except when a complete disaster was staring us in the face, and in the absence of such disaster, the media rarely covered efforts to shift America off fossil fuels or pass climate change legislation, since actually educating the public would be boring and bad for ratings; and the one thing I could be certain of was that for all the outrage being expressed at the moment about wetlands and sea turtles and pelicans, what the majority of us  were really interested in was having the problem go away, for me to clean up yet one more mess decades in the making with some quick and easy fix, so that we could all go back to our carbon-spewing, energy-wasting ways without having to feel guilty about it” (570-71).

Again, that’s what, Obama admits, he wanted to say: stop drilling altogether, get rid of your big SUVs, pay the true price of gasoline, and pass courageous climate change legislation despite effects on the “American Way of Life.”

Instead, the president describes his Casper Milquetoast response with the following words: “. . . I somberly took responsibility and said it was my job to ‘get this fixed.’”

Missed Opportunities

In other words, in contrast to liberation theology’s and Jeremiah Wright’s “preferential option for the poor,” Obama’s policy preference supported the corporate status quo. He short-changed those represented by what he elsewhere describes as “his kind of crowd” from the days when he worshipped at Trinity United – “democracy activists, heads of nonprofits and community organizers working at a grassroots level on issues like housing, public health, and political access” (466).

That in a nutshell encapsulates Obama’s choice not to follow the outspokenness not only of Jeremiah Wright, but of FDR’s ghost with whom POTUS #44 wistfully compares himself throughout his memoir (177, 239, 240, 264, 388, 524, 547, 549).

Following Roosevelt, Mr. Obama’s legacy could have been different. He could have bailed out wage earners instead of the bankers. He could have instituted a 21st century New Deal prioritizing health care, infrastructure renewal, clean energy technology, and a green counterpart to the Civilian Conservation Corps.

Moreover, Barack Obama was more up to selling those programs than any president within living memory. He was better equipped for game-changing fireside chatting than even Roosevelt himself. No chief executive since FDR enjoyed his natural charm, charisma or eloquence.

Yet by his own admission, he wasted what that other Roosevelt called his “bully pulpit” by failing to persuade the American people to support legislation in their own best interests regarding single-payer health care, immigration reform, clean energy, nuclear disarmament, and cessation of endless wars (594).

Conclusion

None of this is to say that his own words in A Promised Land reveal President Barack Obama as somehow nefarious or intentionally two-faced. As presidents go, he emerges as a decent man. And no one can deny the significance of his enormous achievement as the first black man to overcome the tremendous obstacles barring election to the highest office in the land. Moreover, once in office, #44 acquitted himself with impeccable moral integrity (595). His staff worked extremely hard. Mr. Obama was the kind of boss most of us would like to work for – upbeat, sensitive, inclusive and willing to laugh at himself (534). He is also a gifted writer.

Neither is any of this to say that Mr. Obama should have been as outspoken as Jeremiah Wright. Such style might be appropriate for a prophetic pastor on Chicago’s south side, but it’s surely not the way to get elected president.

As a theologian however, I find it regrettable that the former president so completely cut himself off from the lessons learned at the feet of his early mentor. (And this is where Catholic Joe Biden has something to learn from his boss’ admitted regrets.) Had President Obama quietly embraced Dr. Wright’s lessons, had he ignored the Geithners, Emanuels, and Sommers, had he prioritized the needs of the poor, had he offered us another New Deal, we’d likely be living in a far greener country with far less wealth disparity, injustice and anger ( 522, 524).

And judging by Mr. Roosevelt’s success with the electorate, the Democrats would today enjoy much firmer standing in the White House and halls of Congress.    

Biblically speaking, Barack Obama would have brought us all that much closer to A Promised Land.

Jordan and Gender: Workers’ Power to Undo Patriarchy

Like every other basketball fan, I’ve just finished watching ESPN’s ten-episode series, “The Last Dance.” It was about the 1997-’98 championship year of Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls’ – their sixth such triumph in eight years.

The series took on special meaning for me, since at the same time, I was reading the late Allan G. Johnson’s book, The Gender Knot: unraveling our patriarchal legacy. Johnson’s analysis made me realize that I was witnessing in the Jordan video saga the stark exposure of the same system Johnson was explaining in his book. Feminist scholar, bell hooks, calls it the “white supremacist, capitalist, imperialist patriarchy.” That’s the oppressive paradigm in which all of us – men and women alike – live and move and have our being. Hooks and Johnson agree on that point.

But Johnson goes further. He suggests guidelines for escaping the paradigm to make room for its replacement. Following Episode 10 of “The Last Dance,” I found myself wishing Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls had followed their direction. If they had, we might today be living in a very different world.

 Before I get to that, consider first The Gender Knot, and then “The Last Dance.” Together they reveal our patriarchal dilemma.

The Gender Knot

The main thought of The Gender Knot is that every one of us is influenced by a powerful force called patriarchy. It represents our culture’s fundamental paradigm – its unspoken social arrangement and set of assumptions – this one driven by men’s fears and their need to control. It promotes male privilege by being male dominated, male identified, and male centered. It’s what undergirds capitalism, racism, classism, and, of course, sexism.

For Johnson, patriarchy sets the rules of the game. It’s like we’re playing “Monopoly” barely aware that its instructions force us to adopt attitudes and activities that would be disturbing in other situations. “Sorry to drive you into bankruptcy,” we might find ourselves saying, “but those are the rules of the game.”

Understood in this sense, patriarchy governs the jokes men tell, our banter with other men. It governs male self-images as we compare ourselves with peers, competitors, co-workers, friends, characters in movies and on the field of play. It also governs workplace interactions between labor and management.

For many, that thesis in itself might be familiar. What was not as familiar (to me at least) is Johnson’s more penetrating insight that patriarchy is not primarily about men’s fearful and controlling relationships with women.

Instead, patriarchy is chiefly about relations among men. Psychologically, it’s about men justifying and protecting our “manly” and strong self-image before other men whose scrutiny hovers over every aspect of life – on the athletic field, at the bar, in the stadium, in the bedroom, and on the job. In all of these venues, we judge ourselves through a patriarchal gaze. At the deepest level, then, it’s other men we fear – how they might threaten, ridicule, replace, or even rape us.

Economically, it’s about how they might fire us from our jobs after our work has made them rich.

Jordan’s Last Dance

Those watching “The Last Dance” with such analysis in mind can see it played out in the series.

It brings us into the hyper-male context of locker room, court, fawning reporters, and fans. (Virtually no women have significant roles in any of the episodes.) It’s an entirely man’s world and so provides a kind of petri dish for observing and testing Johnson’s theory about men’s fears and desire to control. It also provides a context for analyzing the bigger patriarchal issue of white supremacist capitalism.

At the psychological level, “The Last Dance” displays situations where males must continually prove their fleeting manly worth through attitudes and activities that would be disturbing in other situations. The rules of the basketball world turn them into super patriarchs – openly, proudly (but also fearfully) competitive, aggressive, greedy, self-promoting, belligerent, domineering, vengeful, trash-talking, and preening – again, in an exclusively man’s world completely devoid of women and children.

All of that is true especially of Michael Jordan, the principal focus of the ESPN series. Under the threat of inevitably waning powers and the advent of younger rising stars, he’s driven to constantly prove he’s the best by vanquishing and humiliating all comers. He has to defend his position as GOAT (greatest of all time) by winning more scoring championships, All Star Game nominations, MVP awards, Olympic gold medals, and (above all) NBA championships than any other player.

And that brings us to the economic aspect of “The Last Dance” and its unwitting depiction of the white supremacist capitalist patriarchy. . .

Though universally admired, Jordan’s a kind of tyrant on the job. In labor terms, he’s the ultimate foreman. As a result, grown giants of men – Michael’s teammates – alternately cower and obsequiously smile under M.J.’s judgmental gaze. His leadership style embodies the fear and control Johnson identifies as patriarchal system’s underlying values. So, he berates his teammates, makes fun of them, gets up in their faces, laughs at them, calls them names, and (on one occasion at least) punches them out – all for the sake of more efficient production.

Ironically, Jordan is particularly hard on his boss, Jerry Krause, the General Manager of the Chicago Bulls. Jordan constantly taunts him for being fat and short – at 5’6, a full foot below his tormentor. But like a kid bullied in the school yard, Krause too does the sheepish smiley thing, rolls over and takes it.

However, beneath it all, Krause, perhaps the most unathletic person in the story, is actually its most powerful patriarch. Yes, he’s fat, short and white in a world of giant African American supermen. Yes, they make fun of him and resent his taking credit for the Bulls’ success and for his vendetta against Phil Jackson, the team’s popular coach.

But in the end, it’s Krause along with Jerry Reinsdorf (the Bulls’ owner) who’s the boss – the one who finally decides to break up the greatest basketball team of all time. And this despite his “workers’” desires and those of millions of fans.

And the reason?  In episode ten, Reinsdorf explains why. It’s the money. It’s profit. Referring to some of his frontline players, he said, “Now after the sixth championship, things are beyond our control, because it would have been suicidal to bring back Pippen, Steve Kerr, Rodman and (unintelligible). Their market value was going to be too high. They weren’t going to be worth the value they’d be getting in the market . . . So, . . . I realized we were going to have to go into a rebuild. . .”

In other words, the reason for not pursuing a seventh world championship was that that the organization would have to pay the workers too much. So, white ownership and management (Reinsdorf and Krause) bit the bullet. Or, rather, they forced their African American workers and the consumers of their product to do so.

But that’s the point. It’s the way the racist capitalist patriarchy works. It delivers to a few (usually white) men absolute power over the many. If it were up to the workers, if it were up to the consumers, the Bulls would have gone on to compete for and probably win a fourth consecutive championship. But it wasn’t profitable to the powerful few. So, it didn’t happen.

So much for consumer sovereignty. So much for workers’ rights.  

Lines of Greatest Resistance

Confronted with such dynamics both psychological and economic, Johnson’s Gender Knot asks its central question: What would it take to shift the entire paradigm even as so clearly depicted in “The Last Dance?” What can be done to transform the white supremacist, capitalist, patriarchal paradigm both psychologically and economically?

Johnson’s answer: take the line of greatest resistance. That’s because, like all paradigms, the very purpose of patriarchy’s system is to shunt all of us towards lines of least resistance. Its intention in all spheres is to make it easy for us to go along to get along.

On the other hand, effective resistance means:

  • Following Gandhi and embodying the paradigm we’d like to see the world adopt.
  • Realizing that most of humanity’s 250,000 years were lived under matrifocal, matrilineal, non-capitalist societies.
  • Therefore, rejecting the myth that patriarchal capitalism is somehow inevitable and permanent.
  • Giving up the comforting idea that there’s nothing we can do to synchronize our lives and decisions with history’s ineluctable paradigm shift.
  • Rejecting the related myth that change is meaningless or irrelevant unless we’re around to see it. (We can’t use our human lifespan to judge social progress.)
  • Embracing in every sphere every chance to interrupt the flow of “business as usual.”
  • Daring to make people feel uncomfortable.
  • Beginning each day with the question, “What risk for change will I take today?”
  • To that end, adopting the slogan “Organize, organize, organize.”

Conclusion

The great Larry Bird once described Michael Jordan as “God pretending to be Michael Jordan.” Indiana Pacers legend, Reggie Miller, called him “Black Jesus.” Such transcendent references make me think. . .

Imagine if the collection of black workers called the Chicago Bulls led by their highly driven and charismatic foreman had shared the consciousness explained in The Gender Knot. What if they had organized, interrupted the flow of business as usual, and taken (admittedly large in their case) risks for change in the white supremacist system of capitalist patriarchy?

What if Michael Jordan had used his charisma and marvelous talents in the service of Johnson’s suggestions? What if the Bulls had not simply rolled over for the two Jerrys — Krause and Reinsdorf? What if they had employed their unprecedented status and star power in the eyes of millions worldwide to similarly raise public consciousness about the patriarchal paradigm that oppresses us all.

What if Jordan and company had just said “No!? We’re embracing and appropriating our own power. What’s more, we’re going to organize the NBA Players’ Association into a collective worker-owned cooperative run by us, for us, and for our fans? After all, you owners need us more than we need you. You’re history!”

It would have been revolutionary – and not just for the NBA.

That’s what might have been. But it’s not just fantasy. Changes like that are entirely possible. The fact is that workers united have far more power than Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls ever had.

And as both The Gender Knot and “The Last Dance” suggest, the white supremacist, capitalist, patriarchy is more vulnerable than it seems.     

When God Had A Wife: Ashera, Magdalene & Modern Biblical Scholarship

Why is the world in such trouble?

Biblical scholars Lynn Picknett and Clive Prince present a compelling answer in their 2019 gem, When God Had A Wife: the fall and rise of the sacred feminine in the Judeo-Christian Tradition.

We’re all upset, they tell us, because our patriarchal universe is completely unbalanced. Politically it is overwhelmingly run by members of a single gender. It’s a man’s world whose arrangement excludes almost completely more than half the human race.

That’s true even spiritually. For instance, the Roman Catholic Church with more than 1.3 billion members has a hierarchy composed entirely of men. Outrageously, it holds officially that women are divinely excluded from its ruling elite. Other Christian denominations as well as the Jewish and Islamic communities are not far behind in their patriarchal orientation.

How could we expect balance and harmony in a world like that? No one can.

Of course, none of that should come as a surprise to anyone – especially to women. What is surprising and extremely important in Picknett and Prince’s exposition is their argument that our culture’s spiritual imbalance stands in sharp contradiction to earliest biblical traditions. There in both its Jewish and Christian Testaments the sacred feminine was originally honored as much as the sacred masculine.  

To demonstrate the truth of their position, Picknett and Prince reinterpret the concept of monotheism itself. They take readers on a tour of often-overlooked and downplayed middle eastern biblical sites, expose them to goddess-centered texts, and centralize the figures of Simon Magus, his lover and inspiration Helen, as well as Mary Magdalen who fulfills the same role for Jesus himself. It’s a mind-blowing trip with momentous implications for those committed to solving the world’s problems at their patriarchal and profoundly religious roots.

Monotheism and Patriarchy

Begin by considering the connection between patriarchy and monotheism itself. For the authors of When God Had A Wife, monotheism does not represent a sophisticated advance over a “primitive” polytheism. Quite the reverse. Monotheism instead embodies a drastically narrowed impoverishment of human spiritual experience. It entirely excised the divine feminine which humans across the planet have always thirsted for, recognized and honored. In fact, according to our authors, monotheism is synonymous with “the menfolk.” It is itself a patriarchal project. 

To develop that point, Picknett and Prince show readers that even the Bible is not basically monotheistic in its alleged identification of a single Old White Man in the Sky watching and judging our every decision. It’s not that other gods are merely pretenders who do not exist. It’s not even that the biblical tradition is devoid of goddesses. The latter are evidently visible for scholarly detectives like our authors who have been seeking clues for her presence in primary source manuscripts and secondary scholarship for more than 30 years. (The result has earned them world-wide recognition that even includes a cameo appearance in Hollywood’s version of “The Da Vinci Code.”)

Actually, within Judaism, monotheism (exclusive recognition of one God alone) was a late development. In a tradition that reputedly began about 1200 BCE, monotheism emerged exclusively only around 530 BCE – after the Babylonian exile. It was then that Judah’s elite represented by Ezra, Josiah, and Nehemiah reformulated the nation’s longstanding traditions. Their patriarchal work removed, downplayed, and/or reinterpreted all references acknowledging the existence and power of “foreign” gods other than Yahweh, Judah’s national deity. The reformulators took special pains to erase references to goddess worship.

Ezra’s reforms obscured, for instance, the fact that the people’s origin traditions identified an entire family of Gods as the ones responsible for the creation of the cosmos. Headed by the Great God, El, the family was called Elohim. It included 70 sons. Israel’s Yahweh was one of them – an inferior subordinate of El. His assignment was to protect the nation of Israel. (Note El’s name in the term Yisra-El itself.) Only at the beginning of the first millennium BCE was El replaced by Yahweh as Israel’s particular God.

More importantly for Picknett and Prince, El had a wife. The arrangement was only natural to the ancient mind – divine families mirrored human ones complete with father, mother, sons and daughters. It was just like the Greek and Egyptian myths familiar to all acquainted with classical literature. In fact, El’s wife sometimes had names drawn directly from cultures surrounding the Hebrew nation (Egypt’s in particular). Thus, she was variously identified as Anat, Qadesh, Isis, Sophia, and (the favorite) Asherah. As the quintessential shape shifter, the Hebrew goddess was variously a lustful, raunchy and sexually insatiable seductress, a fierce warrior, a loving wife, a beloved mother, and a wise crone.

Consider Ashera then. Despite patriarchal attempts to write her out of the Bible, and despite similar cultural obstacles obscuring the perception of most contemporary scholars, Asherah’s prominence for ancient Hebrews emerges unmistakably from:

  • The hundreds of female figurines unearthed from early iterations of pre-exilic Hebrew temples, i.e. before the end of the 6th century BCE. (That’s right: Asherah was officially worshipped in Jerusalem’s temple as well as in a Hebrew counterpart on the Nile Island called “Elephantine,” and in Samaria’s sanctuary on Mt. Gerizim.)
  • Their absence from similar sites following the 6th century reform
  • The presence of Asherah’s symbol [some version of a palm-like tree and/or mysterious (and always feminine) cherubim] inscribed on temple doors and other holy places closely associated with worship of El
  • Even more specific dedications sweetly referring to “El’s Asherah” or “Yahweh’s Asherah” on or near temple sites
  • Prohibitions by the anti-goddess prophets of outdoor worship associated with Asherah’s iconic trees
  • Indications in the oldest biblical texts that female biblical heroines like the Judge Deborah may have been priestesses of Asherah herself
  • Ashera’s reappearance as a domesticated “Sophia” in the Book of Wisdom (and elsewhere) redacted by patriarchs reluctantly responding to widespread popular demand for acknowledgement of the sacred feminine. Describing her as Sophia, even these conservative biblical texts identify the goddess as Yahweh’s first thought and co-creator with him. (More about this below. . .) 

The bottom line here is that goddess worship was central to ancient Israel’s past. Only heroic (not to say malevolent) efforts by the nation’s 6th century (BCE) reformers coupled with the cultural blindness of mainstream biblical scholarship has kept that powerful truth from penetrating the consciousness of Jews and Christians everywhere.

Jesus (& Simon Magus) as Feminist

Despite such obstacles past and present, our authors go on to explain the survival of goddess worship within the Judeo-Christian tradition. In the process, they take us on a geographical odyssey from Judah to Alexandria and then to Samaria illustrating how recognition of the sacred feminine was advanced not only by the “proto-feminist” Jesus of Nazareth, but by two unexpectedly key figures: the arch-heretic Simon Magus (i.e. Simon the Magician) and John the Baptist.

As just indicated, even the best efforts of its scribal menfolk, could not keep goddess worship out of Judah’s public consciousness. Without honoring her actual name, popular pressure evidently forced the patriarchs to somehow acknowledge Ashera’s identity and influence. That pressure was increased by the spread of Greek (Hellenistic) culture especially as it emanated from Alexandria where fully 1/3 of the population was Jewish. (Greek culture was far more woman-friendly than its Jewish counterpart.)

Accordingly, as evidenced in the Book of Wisdom (produced at the end of the 3rd century BCE), the sacred feminine resurfaced under the title Sophia, a de-sexualized, sanitized, domesticated and abstract female principle called “Wisdom” and portrayed as God’s First Thought — his co-creator of the universe.

For its part, Samaria also proved central to the preservation of goddess traditions. Contrary to the impression given in the canonical gospels, the region was not a minor, out-of-the-way location. Instead, it covered a major swath of territory in northern Israel which was always more prosperous than its southern neighbor. The opposite impression comes from the anti-Israel and pro-Judah bias of the Jewish Testament in general and from a similar prejudice against Samaria itself in Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John.

In any case, Samaria played a major role in Jesus’ public life as did its inhabitants. Scandalously, a Samaritan emerged as the hero of one of Jesus’ most famous parables. Additionally, according to John’s Gospel, Jesus made his first public declaration of his messianic identity to a Samaritan woman.

John the Baptist had Samaritan connections too. So did Simon Magus, who (as we’ll see presently) was both a disciple and rival of Jesus. And since Simon as well as Jesus were disciples of John, and since both of them ended up centralizing devotion to flesh-and-blood embodiments of Sophia, it makes sense to attribute similar focus to the Baptist.

In fact, all three – Jesus, John the Baptist and Simon the Magician had equal first century claims to the title of Christ or Messiah. (Well into the second century, John’s disciples invoked Jesus’ own praise of their master as “the greatest prophet” to argue John’s superiority to Jesus.) It’s therefore a fluke of history that today’s “Christians” are not Johannites or Simonists.  

As for Simon Magus . . . Christian polemic portrays him as a contemptuous minor figure not only in Luke’s Acts of the Apostles but throughout early Christian tradition. However, historically speaking, he himself was widely revered as the Son of God. He was a wonder worker on a par with his Nazarene rival. Both men presented themselves as prophets of Sophia. Both were besotted with women who for them embodied God’s Wisdom complete with all the sexual overtones reminiscent of goddess worship everywhere.

The latter is most evident in the case of Simon, a free thinker who, like Jesus, rejected the group consensus of his own time in favor of the Wisdom of God. Simon’s Sophia went by the name Helen whom he portrayed as God’s First Thought. She was a former prostitute whose status as such, Simon argued, incarnated the patriarchy’s degrading treatment of women in general. Accessing Helen’s wisdom involved daily sexual relations with the beloved.

Jesus’ relations with his own Sophia, Mary Magdalen, mirrored that of Simon the Magician. Clearly his favorite, Mary was Jesus’ link with his many female disciples. She was probably his sexual consort if not his wife and mother of his children. (It was simply a given, the authors argue, that any Jewish man above 20 years of age had to be married. So, at the age portrayed in the gospels, Jesus was either a widower or a divorcee.)

At the same time, Mary Magdalene was a rival of Peter the apostle who according to Magdalene’s Gospel and other recently discovered texts was an extreme misogynist and enemy of the one Jesus saw as the embodiment of the divine feminine – God’s First Thought. Jesus’ identification of Mary as “the apostle of apostles” wounded Peter to the quick.

All of this has evident implications not only for questions about the sacred feminine in general, about goddess worship and church leadership, but also for “the contemporary rise of the sacred feminine in the Judeo-Christian tradition” and for restoring balance in our increasingly troubled world.

Conclusion

Reading When God Had A Wife was like taking a short course in biblical studies. Thankfully, it recalled for me what I had learned more than half a century ago in the most important courses I took in preparation for priestly ordination in the Catholic seminary. And that recollection made me wonder why the knowledge communicated in When God Had A Wife has not yet filtered down to those who occupy the pews in churches and synagogues, and prayer mats in mosques.

It’s as if there were some conspiracy to keep everyone ignorant, naïve and childish in their approach to faith. For instance, our authors reminded me that in the seminary well more than 50 years ago, I had learned about text criticism, form criticism and redaction criticism. I wonder why all of that isn’t common knowledge.

The answer of Picknett and Prince is that there has indeed been a conspiracy by the ruling elite to keep everything secret. The goddess had to be removed from the Judeo-Christian pantheon to more firmly establish patriarchal monotheism, which, remember, has always been about “the menfolk.”

It’s that latter insight that will stick with me long after I’ve forgotten the wonderfully detailed and exquisitely documented work presented in When God Had A Wife. The interests of the menfolk explain more convincingly than anything else the reluctance of those who should know better to share with the rest of us the rich fruits of biblical scholarship.

After all, if “the faithful” knew about variant texts, literary forms and redacted interpretations, they might call into question the exclusive right claimed by priests, bishops, cardinals, popes, rabbis, and imams to explain their Old White Man up in the Sky. They might embrace instead female leadership and Yahweh’s Wife – Ashera, Anat, the Cosmic Mother, or Isis.

For that matter, they might demand ecclesial leadership modeled on the discipleship of Mary Magdalene or Simon Magus’ Helen.   

It’s because Picknett and Prince have the courage to forcefully and convincingly suggest such revisions that I cannot recommend more highly their supremely accessibly and wonderfully popularized When God Had A Wife: the fall and rise of the sacred feminine in the Judeo-Christian tradition.

“A Summer with Freeman”: A Rollicking First Novel by Dan Geery

Dan Geery is a friend of mine who publishes regularly on OpEdNews. His first novelA Summer with Freeman, is terrific book — so well written. Its sparkling and hilarious prose seemed like the work of a veteran novelist, not that of a first timer. The dialog is funny and realistic. And the whole story about fourteen-year-old Joey Simpson and his first summer with a new friend, fifteen-year-old Freddie Freeman, made me recall my own coming of age as I’m sure it does for most of Dan’s readers. This is movie-quality work.

Set in the 1950s, the book has all the elements most of us recall:

  • Unhappiness at school
  • Summers with time to do the unthinkable
  • Building forts and get-aways from parents and younger siblings
  • Experiencing bullying
  • Trying to be tough, despite it all
  • Overriding interests in comic books, girls and sex and early dabbling in cigarettes and liquor
  • Fascination with cars and driving
  • Key friendships with bigger, tougher, older, and wiser guys who were “wilder” and devil-may-care
  • Early crushes and idealizations of their objects, who often turn out to be the opposite of what the crushes fancied
  • General confusion before the mysteries of life

For me, the most unforgettable moments included:

  • Narrow escapes from the local bully and his gang especially in a furious bike-get-away and a concluding showdown at the local swimming hole
  • Freeman’s wild ride in the convertible he vengefully “borrowed” from the bully himself
  • An encounter with a pretty, flirtatious waitress in the local diner
  • Joey’s painful meetings with the women of his dreams, Maggie and Anabelle
  • Joey and Freeman’s downing two bottles of gin in the woods
  • Catholic Joey’s confession to an overly-inquisitive priest

I must admit that I once tried my hand at writing book-length fiction. And, according to my guide, Writing a Novel and Getting it Published, it transformed me into a successful novelist at least according to the book’s definition. It said a successful novelist is “any writer who has completed a project generally recognizable as a novel.” By those standards, yes: I made it. However, that’s where my success concluded. My novel turned out to be stodgy, moralistic, and filled with “telling” rather than “showing.”

Daniel Geery’s first novel, A Summer with Freeman, has none of that. It’s a rollicking read and an evocative entertaining tale that will have you smiling, if not laughing, from beginning to end.

My Interview on Rob Kall’s “Bottom-Up” Podcast/Radio Program

Two weeks ago, Rob Kall posted an interview with me on OpEdNews. It centered on my book, The Magic Glasses of Critical Thinking: seeing through alternative fact & fake news. I had great fun doing the show. Here it is.

Don’t Worry about Russians Rigging Our Elections: Long Ago, U.S. Politicians Beat Them to the Punch!

Steele.jpg
Readings for 16th Sunday in Ordinary Time: Jer. 23:1-6; Ps. 23: 1-3, 3-4, 5, 6; Eph. 2: 13-18; Mk. 6: 30-34

Everyone’s talking about election hacking these days. In the country’s latest reprise of “the Russians are coming,” we’re all in turmoil about Putin’s interference in U.S. elections.

However, don’t you find it highly ironic politicians on all sides are so worried about “Russian hacking,” while virtually none of them is addressing much more significant forms of election rigging? I’m talking about the criminal fixes arranged by the U.S. officials themselves?

More specifically, these include the retention of the outdated electoral college itself, outrageous gerrymandering of voting districts, super delegates at nominating conventions, voter suppression’s many forms (from voter IDs to felony disenfranchisement laws), Koch brother funding of candidates’ election campaigns (as in Citizens United), and the use of highly hackable computerized technology that miscounts and discounts millions of votes each election cycle. (No wonder so many of us decide on election day, “Why bother?”)

The upshot of it all is that we end up with a system controlled at all levels by a minority party that doesn’t want everyone to vote. That’s because its members could never be elected to the presidency (and its control of the judiciary) if voters exercised their franchise in anything like the numbers in other industrially-developed countries.

And so, we end up with a crisis of political leadership with one-percenters like Donald Trump and George W. Bush running things – and with corporate-funded Barrack Obama trailing not very far behind.

I bring all of this up because the theme of today’s Liturgy of the Word is political leadership.

The liturgical image for doing so is shepherding. That pastoral metaphor brings to mind characteristics of presence, watchfulness, protection, and overriding concern for the sheep of the flock. I’m confident you’d agree that the political leaders I mentioned earlier in no way embody those qualities.

The first reading from the Prophet Jeremiah joins us in lamenting the absence of political leaders with the qualities just mentioned. Instead of uniting people, and drawing them together, the would-be leaders even in Jeremiah’s day (all men, of course) were dividing and scattering them as effectively as our own. Through Jeremiah God promises to appoint new governance to reverse that syndrome.

Today’s reading from the Gospel of Mark elaborates the theme. It focuses on Jesus’ own practice of spiritual shepherding. Jesus fulfills the promise of Jeremiah by drawing his apprentice shepherds from an entirely new class of people – not from the tribe of Levi and its inherited priesthood, not from the royal palace – not from the one-percenters of his day – but from the marginalized and decidedly unroyal and unpriestly in the traditional sense. Jesus chooses illiterate fishermen, day-laborers, and possibly real working shepherds. By all accounts women also prominently filled shepherding roles in Jesus’ practice.

Finally, the responsorial psalm and Paul’s letter to the Christian community at Ephesus remind us of the reason for shepherds at all – not the preservation of tradition, much less of patriarchy. Rather, shepherds are there to embody compassion. They exist for the welfare of the sheep.

In Paul’s words, leaders are to foster the emergence of a new kind of person. In the familiar phrasing of Psalm 23, that new version of humanity is not over-worked, but rested, and lives in pleasant surroundings, without fear, lacking nothing, with plenty to eat and drink. Shepherds are there for the sake of righteousness, justice, and compassion. (Read Psalm 23 again with that in mind.)

So, given our broken electoral system, how do we get from here to there – to something approaching the biblical vision just described?

Well, I’ve just read a wonderful book that suggests the path ahead. But, get ready: it involves hard work for all of us. The book is called Grassroots, Geeks, Pros, and Pols. It’s written by OpEdNews editor, Marta Steele, and is a magisterial study of the corruption of our electoral system.

To begin with, Steele suggests that we must face up to the facts that:

• The Founding Fathers rejected the notion of democracy (cf. Federalist Paper # 10).
• Their assertion that “all men are created equal” was meant to establish their right to expropriate Native Americans and African slaves of their land and resources. (This is documented in Chapter 13 of my new book, The Magic Glasses of Critical Thinking).
• Instead, the Founders believed (as John Jay said) that the country should be run by those who own it.
• Both the anti-democracy and elite-ownership traditions find their clearest contemporary expression in Paul Weyrich’s statement in 1980 about Republicans not wanting everyone to vote based on their realization that if everyone did cast a ballot, a Republican president would never again darken the White House door (cf. Steele 233).
• Computerized voting machines overwhelmingly favor that minority otherwise unelectable party by miscounting and discounting thousands of votes in each state and millions nation-wide (Steele passim).
• Knowledge of such purposeful malfunctions tempts citizens (like me) to eschew voting itself. And this, of course, plays right into the minority’s hands.
• The only way to restore voter confidence is to revert to paper ballot technology (because it’s better and works) with safeguards against traditional ballot box stuffing methods.
• More specifically, the answer is to:

* Eliminate the electoral college in favor of direct popular vote (Why is virtually no one even discussing this?)
* Abolish gerrymandering by making redistricting a bi-partisan process subject to the approval of an effective Federal Election Commission (see below).
* Establish uniform, nation-wide electoral standards and procedures overseen, not by the states, but by the previously-referenced and truly empowered bi-partisan Federal Commission whose goal is maximizing voter turn-out as well as increasing voter confidence in the electoral process by its transparent certification process.
* Get private money out of the electoral process in favor of public funding.
* Outlaw voting machines altogether and replace them with paper ballots.
* More specifically, implement a system of automatic and verifiable voter registration; revert to the practice of universal hand-counted paper ballots; establish a national voting holiday period (from Saturday to Tuesday), with ballots hand-counted by senior Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts on Wednesday.

All of this should remind us that according to Jesus’ highly political metaphor, the Kingdom of God meant “a political system as God would arrange it.” Today’s readings call attention to the fact that such arrangement centralizes human welfare, grassroots leadership, and ardent compassion for all. It places the welfare of “the sheep” at center and includes provision of food, drink, healthy environment, and needed rest. Those are not the goals of our political minority. However, to attain goals like that, “shepherds” must be present, watchful and caring.

To repeat, today’s electoral system gives us nothing similar. And that’s not Mr. Putin’s fault. It’s the fault of our broken system and its unbiblical discouragement of grassroots focus. To fix it will require great commitment and work by all of us.

Marta Steele’s Grassroots, Geeks, Pros, and Pols complements today’s readings by thoroughly describing the problem and by offering suggestions about how to fix it.

Do yourself a favor: follow up on today’s readings by consulting the book.

Press Release: The Critical Thinking Manual Progressive Teachers Have Been Waiting For: My New Book

Magic Glasses Cover

Mike Rivage-Seul has just published the book progressive teachers have been waiting for to ground their post-secondary courses on critical thinking. Available on April 17th from Peter Lang Publishing, the book is called The Magic Glasses of Critical Thinking: seeing through alternative fact and fake news.

Rivage-Seul is an emeritus professor of peace and social justice studies at Berea College in Kentucky, where he taught for more than 40 years. He publishes a monthly column in the Lexington Herald-Leader.

His approach to critical thinking – to education itself – should be familiar to progressives. It starts from the position that the purpose of such process is not primarily to interpret the world, but to change it. Therefore, critical thinking and education should not be neutral. It should equip students with the tools they need for social activism.

Magic Glasses summarizes what Rivage-Seul considers the most important insights he gathered over his years of travel and study throughout Europe and especially in the Global South – specifically in Brazil, Nicaragua, Cuba, Costa Rica, Honduras, Mexico, Zimbabwe, South Africa, and India, as well as in Israel-Palestine.

“As you can tell by the title,” Mike says, “The Magic Glasses could hardly be timelier. The concept comes from the great comedian and social activist, Dick Gregory. He spoke of critical thinking as functioning like a set of spectacles. They confer special insight enabling their wearers to see things quite differently from what is considered ‘normal.’

“However, Gregory warns that the glasses come with three rules. The first is that once you put them on, you can never take them off. The second says that once you put them on, you can never see things the way everybody else does, but only as they truly are. And the third is that you can never force anyone else to wear them.”

In other words, Rivage-Seul’s book might be a dangerous read. For instance, he echoes Global South scholars by seeing sinister intent in the Declaration of Independence’s celebrated statement that “All men are created equal.” With those same scholars, he refers to World War II as the “Second Inter-Capitalist War,” and sees the United States as currently occupying the same global position that Adolph Hitler aspired to attain – with similar effect.

“I’ve been wearing Gregory’s magic glasses for years,” Mike says. “They’ve shaped my all my teaching and have often got students mad at me – at least at first. And you should read some of the comments my newspaper columns get! It’s all because I constantly apply the ten rules for critical thinking that my book explains.”

Those rules include: (1) Reject Neutrality, (2) Reflect Systemically, (3) Select Market (as the root of political differences), (4) Suspect Ideology, (5) Respect History, (6) Inspect Scientifically, (7) Connect with Your Deepest Self, (8) Quadra-sect Violence, (9) Detect Silences, and (10) Collect Conclusions.

As a result of employing those guidelines, Rivage-Seul understands U.S. history, terrorism, the renewed nuclear arms race, world hunger, trade agreements, immigration, Black Lives Matter, and other hot button issues in ways that end up being 180 degrees opposed to the mainstream.

“I’m in good company though,” Mike observes. “I’m trying to channel the spirit of the world’s great critical thinkers. Think about it. None – not Jesus, the Buddha, not Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Dorothy Day, Thomas Merton, or Helen Keller – was neutral. They weren’t worried about ‘balance’ or offending anyone. For them, speaking truth to power and living with the results were all that mattered.

“I’m hoping that my book falls into that tradition.”

That social activist tradition is indeed developed in The Magic Glasses. And each point is illustrated with movie clips from films such as Traffic, The Post, Avatar, Sausage Party, The Distinguished Gentleman, Good Will Hunting, American Sniper, Captain Phillips, American History X, War Dogs, Bulworth, and even with the Broadway musical, Hamilton.

In sum, The Magic Glasses of Critical Thinking represents and attempt to supply secondary and post-secondary teachers with a complete syllabus for a course on critical thinking that will help students radically revision their world in ways that inevitably challenge all of their preconceptions.

As such, Rivage-Seul’s book on critical thinking is not only the one progressives have been waiting for, it’s a page-turner as well. As Rob Kall, the editor-in-chief of OpEdNews puts it in his endorsement:

“I love this book. It’s brilliantly written by a very wise man who’s been serially enriched by spending time with some of the world’s greatest visionaries. And he shares what he learned from his conversations with them. The book is addictively readable. I started to skim the book to see if it was worth putting my time into and found I couldn’t stop reading. Michael Rivage-Seul brings sparkling vivacity to the potentially dry topic of critical thinking. As one who has interviewed hundreds of visionaries, I found this book to offer new perspectives and ways of seeing-which is what building critical thinking skills is all about. This book offers so much more than what its title, at first glance suggests. Have a taste and you, will like me, find yourself wanting to consume all the courses of this delicious meal.”