Hosea, Habakkuk, Heston
The closest I’ve come to hearing a booming celebrity biblical voice was on the phone with Charlton Heston. He famously played Moses in the 1956 Ten Commandments movie. Some years before he died in 2008, he was in Nashville, and he granted an interview. We started with 2nd Amendment politics but ended on belief, blockbusters and backlot gossip. As a bonus to me he recited some dialogue from Planet of the Apes (1969). He signed off that day with a nice bit of non-denominational wisdom: “Do your best, and keep your promises.”
It’s a strange marvel how the Bible plays out in the imagination of modern entertainment media – and how public tastes and technologies change. Ten Commandments was a huge 1950s success (using 14,000 extras and 15,000 animals). Then big-screen biblical epics fell flat in the 1960s. American spirituality was fragmenting. Religious attendance entered a decline. The cinematic sweep of the Exodus story gave way to narrower themes. A trend of new apocalyptic speculations was better suited to books like The Late Great Planet Earth. The last big Bible movie was Mel Gibson’s polarizing The Passion of the Christ nearly 20 years ago.
It’s tempting to regard a box office smash, or the absence of one, as an index of biblical influence and ethics, or their eclipse. But this is elusive stuff. Bible interest today is dispersed, entrepreneurial, harder to gauge than ever, especially amid the traumatic disruptions of a pandemic.
Polls and surveys keep trying. Recently the American Bible Society reported increases in Bible reading during the Covid crisis. Fifty percent of Americans read it at least three or four times a year outside of congregational settings, according to the “State of the Bible: USA 2021” study. That percentage hasn’t changed in a decade. Last year, though, one in six adults reads scripture “most days during the week,” a 12 percent increase over 2020.
The survey identified various sources of personal comfort during Covid. Family members topped the list, followed by prayer/meditation, food and exercise. Bible reading was ranked seventh, just ahead of a stiff drink. Among Black Americans, Bible reading was in the top three.
With almost ritual familiarity, the study warned that today’s youngsters inhabit a very different informational world from their elders, and new learning models are needed to engage teens’ questions about the sacred. Granted, this is sobering news, yet hardly news at all. Adults in America have worried about religion’s decline ever since the first generation of Mayflower Puritans, who fretted about their own children going morally slack. What I never hear from the professional adult worriers is any acceptance of responsibility for the world of ruthless inequality and social media anxiety that they created and which the young have no choice but to inherit.
The new abnormal doesn’t change a basic truth: even when it is heard in a congregation, the Bible renews itself one reader at a time, usually quietly, under the radar, undetected, driven by crisis, gratitude, or (who knows) a vision of political transformation.
The Bible carries a secret, poet Richard Howard once said: it is “addressed not to everyone but to each one.” In every line, the Bible “hints at something that it does not reveal but that tempts us, arrests us, fascinates us all the more,” he said in a 1996 lecture.
When I read from Ecclesiastes or Jeremiah or the Gospels—late at night, through a mirror dimly (as St. Paul put it) while the pandemic burns—I think I see what poet Howard means.
A Hootenanny in the Trees
One night recently I heard two owls hooting to each other from 300 feet apart, each in its own tall tree. Then came a loud flutter—one owl had swooped over to join the other. In the moonlight I could now see them both on the same high oak limb above me. Still hooting, still talking—what about? Was this a first date? Or two old comrades comparing notes about the rainy change of weather arriving overnight?
Chances are they were not exchanging disinformation. The bird world depends on hard facts to get through the day—data about food and predators. To my untrained ears, the moment was sweet and mysterious, but also melancholy that the animals of earth must navigate our poisonous prerogatives here below the trees, our pollution and sprawl.
The hootenanny in the treetops happened shortly before Earth Day, an unofficial holiday (April 22) that doesn’t yet have a holiday feel. The rhythms of the day didn’t change much. (Interstate was loud as ever.) At this point one Earth Day a year isn’t enough. We need the 12 Days of Earth Day. We need Earth Month, Earth Year, Earth Decade, Earth Century.
A kindly regard for daily planetary health—it’s not out of the question. We’ve already proven we can change our habits and policies. Earth Day didn’t exist before 1970. Then one space age photo transformed history: the famous “earthrise” image of our blue-green island home, transmitted by Apollo 8 on Christmas Eve 1968. People caught their breath on it. And, exhaling, life looked a little different after. Barely a year later, the first Earth Day stirred 20 million earthlings to protest oil spills, toxic dumps, and other environmental sins. It planted itself in the public mind. It united Republicans and Democrats. By the end of 1970, the US had an Environmental Protection Agency and a Clean Air Act. Soon came the Clean Water Act (1972) and the Endangered Species Act (1973).
The religious world mobilized, shepherding a moral awakening. Suddenly Genesis 1 looked urgent again: “God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good.” Today scores of entities provide inspiration, aiming for a faith response that is neither convenient nor inconvenient but heartfelt and second nature (haranguing doesn’t work). The organization GreenFaith declares: “Rooted in gratitude for life and for Earth itself, our spiritual paths guide us to care for creation or nature, live simply, avoid waste, and love our neighbors, especially the most vulnerable.”
It’s not happening fast enough. Despair is creeping in with the news of wildfires, monster storms and species collapse. An everyday theology of creation still eludes the world—a way of seeing planetary life as a sacramental sign, the divine fingerprints on sunlight and wind, flora and fauna, an affirmative answer to the question, Did God create all this or not?
I hope the owls return tonight. But they don’t share their itinerary with me. It’s haunting to think their unearthly earthly sounds predated us and will surely outlast us.They endure despite us. They’re doing their best to co-exist with us. Are we?
TRUTH AND CONSEQUENCES AND TOMATOES
A highlight last summer was picking out tomatoes at the farmers’ market down the road, particularly those labeled “Amish.” Something about that word Amish stirs reassurance. The Amish are a. small, study group descended from sectarian Protestant history and associated with thrift, health, rectitude, self-restraint under God.
For a long time, those values leavened the broader culture too, when Protestantism dominated America. No longer – history rampages on, and the future blows down the doors. No time for nostalgia.
Protestantism always stood for several things – freedom of individual conscience, the freedom to worship or read scripture in one’s own language, freedom to access God without institutional filters. Those convictions enlivened the birth of the US.
Now church influence is failing. Secularism claims more ground. Society is unavoidably more pluralistic. History’s unintended consequences abound: Oddly enough, Protestantism contributed to post-Protestantism.
How did it happen? A certain logic unfolded. The freedom to read the Bible expanded to mean freedom to read anything religious, or anything anti-religious, or anything at all, or nothing at all. The freedom to reject established religious institutions became a temptation to reject all institutions. The word “religious” itself started losing luster. Other impulses swept in – new spiritual quests and truth claims, visions of unfettered consumerism as well as nihilistic eruptions punctuating the dark, without moral restraint or shame.
Does Protestantism have a future in such a world? I don’t mean Vacation Bible School, 35-minute sermons, the prosperity gospel, the hymns of Wesley, or the Book of Common Prayer. Those arose out of specific times and will continue if there’s a need.
The Protestant future will depend not on Lake Wobegon memories but something else, the Protestant Principle. Theologian Paul Tillich has described this principle as a spirit of transformation in religion and society both. It draws on the creative disruptions of God, including the Hebrew prophets and the teachings of Jesus, that challenge hopelessness and convert the heart. It is a force that any faith might call on to reform itself and the bigger world.
“Justice will take us millions of intricate moves,” declared the late poet William Stafford, who was a courteous, fierce voice of solidarity (he was a Kansas native associated with Church of the Brethren, a Protestant peace church). A humane future of reform, whether it’s still called Protestant or not, will depend on self-discipline, patience, and expectation, the sort of things necessary for making better laws, writing poems, or growing tomatoes.