Friday, December 07, 2007

December 6, 2007

People of The Book(s)

(A gratuitously offensive look at religion and religion in politics.)

On Thursday Republican presidential candidate, Mitt Romney, will give a speech addressing his religion, Mormonism. Romney hopes to repeat John F. Kennedy's success when he dampened concerns about his Catholic faith.

Good luck. Kennedy had a much easier task than Romney faces, for several reasons.

First, the Catholic Church had been around for at least a millennium and a half. Hell, once upon a time it was about the only (legal) Christian faith around. It was be Catholic or meet Mr. Stretching Machine. Back then the Catholic Church virtually ran Europe for hundreds of years. (Run little altar boys, run. )

Catholics eventually become something of burr under the saddle of Western civilization, resulting in fracture of Christianity into the Mulligan stew of Christian sects we have today. Still,  JFK didn't have to convince other Christians that his faith was basically under the same tent with theirs.

On the other hand Romney's Mormon faith is viewed by many Christians as not under their tent at all. They tend to lump Mormonism in with the likes of  Rev. Moon's church, the Branch Dividians and Scientology. Mormons went off and formed their own gang, they use different gang signs, wear secret colors (under their cloths) and generally roll with their own on on their own turf.

But Romney's biggest hurdle will be explaining why two volumes of revelation weren't enough for Mormons. Why the Old and New Testaments were insufficient. Why Mormons felt a third book was required, one that neither Moses or Jesus seemed to need, never mentioned and --  to many of us who've actually read it -- is, well, kinda nutty. (I understand that when it comes to religious tracts the term "nutty" is relative. But if there were a machine able to measure the nuttiness content of three books in question, the BOM would most surely be required to carry a warning label.)

How did we end up with Three Bibles?

The appearance of the New Testament nearly two millennia ago is easy to explain. The first book, the Old Testament, imposed on unruly desert tribes a wrathful God, one for whom smiting anything that moved verged on being a nervous tick. He turned people in pillars of salt for sight-seeing without permission. He was forever knocking down city walls, turning rivers red, deploying swarms of bugs, visiting plagues and contagious diseases upon those who displeased Him. In short, the God of the Old Testament was a real SOB.

The God of the Old Testament had to be an SOB, of course.  A touchy-feelie God back then would not have done at all. The God of the Old Testament was tasked with lording over a hundred million loose canons. Leaders at the time were having a devil of a time trying to organize their unruly, footloose tribes into some semblance of an orderly society. So they had to come up with a terrifying celestial vestige just to get them to stop killing, raping, coveting and otherwise running amok.  ("Just wait until your father gets home!") So Moses went up the mountain and came back with the new rules. It all got boiled down to a simple message : mess with the God of the Old Testament and you're toast.

And it worked, at least for about three thousand years. (Not a bad shelf-life by modern marketing standards!)

But around 2,100 years ago marketing a "just-bomb-em" Cheney-like God of the Old Testament began wearing thin with the flock. Followers of the Old Testament had gotten the whole social order thing down, and they were sick and tired of being treated like a bunch of hen-pecked husbands by their God. Some in the flock began yearning for, and predicting the arrival of, a kinder, gentler Supreme Being ... one they could worship because they wanted to rather than because they were afraid not to.

Which is why once Jesus started preaching his message of love and forgiveness, it was as though Mr. Rogers had replaced Darth Vader. Jesus was the Bill Clinton of his time. He "felt their pain," got down with the common folk and even women of ill repute were welcomed with open arms. 

In short, Jesus was a breath of fresh air. He didn't threaten them with plagues or infestations. Instead Jesus did stuff for them, like turning water into wine. (Wine was the big deal 2000 years ago. Imagine if some guy came into your dorm and turned a tub of bath water into delicious beer! That's how popular Jesus was back then. Brilliant!) 

Jewish by birth, Jesus also liked to show off his natural delicatessen skills to those who showed up to his rallies by serving them up apparently bottomless picnick baskets of fish and bread. And Jesus not only didn't go around smiting folks but actually un-smited one guy and gave eyesight back to those the old God had visually smited.

It was a tour de force, and a game-changer. In a matter of a few short years the mean-God of the Old Testament was plummeting in the polls and the Jesus campaign was on a roll. Of course that greatly displeased supporters  (the Jewish version of our modern-day neo-cons) of the old mean God. They'd had a long run and built up a sure thing with scared people, money changers and all. They were not about to let this Jesus guy get a piece of that action.  (The job of getting rid of this nuisance would eventually be given to Jerusalem-based Paulie Walnutstein and his crew.)

The whole Jesus thing really caught fire though when the twelves-member PR firm of Simon, James, John, Mathew, et al, threw it's weight behind Jesus and began touring with him. In what must go down as history's most successful turning of a lemon into lemonade the twelve men leveraged Jesus' execution into a 2000-year worldwide run of success. Talk about viral marketing! (Eat your hearts out Nike, Microsoft & Apple.)

So there's my version of how we ended up with two Bibles. After 3000 years of slinking around expecting to get their pathetic butts smited at the drop of a hat,. the people were primed for a kinder, gentler, less smite-crazy God. And that was Jesus, at least as the 12 apostle PR men went on to memorialize him in what became The New Testament. Jesus was their client, their only client, and even in death they figured out how to keep their thing going. Which explains how the New Testament came into being, sparking the Energizer Bunny of religions. 

Now Mitt Romney has to explain that third book, the one they claim completes the Biblical set - The Book of Mormon (BOM).  I've read it..or at least tried to read it. How is it? Well let's see. Take any one of the Harry Potter novels, drain any semblance of personality from the characters, remove the plot but leave in the fantasy, magic and imaginary people and places -- and you get a rough idea. (Mark Twain described the BOM as, "Chloroform in print." Actually it's more along the lines of chloroform/LSD in print.)

Which is why I figure Mitt has job cut out for him Thursday.  I suspect he won't go anywhere near the BOM during that little televised chat.  Because he sure as hell doesn't want to try explaining to Mildred and Willard Smith of Dog Flats Iowa just how some American Indians became one of the lost tribes of Israel. (Jewish Indians? Oy Vey!) Or how Mormon founder, Joseph Smith used a magic stone (a "seer stone") to translate long dead (and even never existed) languages in English. Or how living the letter of the law, as outline in the BOM, gets rewarded with your own planet to rule over after you die.

 ("Yo, Houston, we've got a problem -- Deep Space One here. We've discovered a really weird planet ruled by some guy claiming his name is Jack Monroe, formerly of Salt Lake City, Utah. He says he wants to transport a couple of neatly-dressed young men to our ship for a little chat. Please advise Houston.")

No, Mitt will have to steer clear of the details of his Mormon faith. Because if voters knew the kinds things he believes are true they'd never let him within a hundred miles of the Oval Office.

The bottom line is that most (sane & well-adjusted) modern humans have a built-in credulity fuse.  They can only internalize a certain level of metaphysical nonsense before that fuse blows.  

And Mitt Romney's Bible - Vol. No. 3 -- the Book of Mormon -- is a real fuse blower.