Donald Andrew Henson II

Posts Tagged ‘Joseph Campbell’

Enter the Shaman

In American Economy, American Society, Religion and Money on March 17, 2017 at 6:01 pm

I’m spending a lot of time talking about economics in these recent posts – partly due to the fact that this is the topic of much of my current reading. But partly because it is one of the most pertinent questions we face in the US and around the world today – should economic policy be progressive, giving more to those who have the least (the liberal view), should it be based on Biblical or traditional principles (the conservative view), or should economic policy be set by closely examining hard economic data (the rational/secular view)? In short, how we gear our economy says a lot about us as a nation. And due to what I see as an undeniable influence of ‘theology’ over at least one party’s economic philosophy, it is certainly a topic within the scope of this blog.

Is hard work its own reward? From the very beginning of the Reformation through today, this is the economic message promoted by the Church – a message which is a key part of the economic agenda of today’s GOP conservatives, at least so far as it applies to those of us who work for a living. The ‘tough love’ doctrine we hear repeatedly from Republicans is that liberal policies de-incentivize work; if you don’t give someone a welfare check, they must go out and work at the local Wal-Mart or McDonald’s, no matter how lousy the work or pay. This eliminates slackers, and is not only good for them, but for society as a whole. Bible principles make it clear that people who don’t work shouldn’t eat (or have healthcare, education for their children, etc.)

Now let’s set aside my original question – what happens when technology eliminates even the low-level jobs like this (which, by the way, is already happening in Seoul. My last visit there, December 2016, McD’s have already replaced cashiers with computer terminals – just the beginning, I’m sure) – we’ll come back to it in a post or two. Notice again how scriptural interpretations of a ‘Biblical economy’ fit hand-in-glove with what benefits most the owners of the economy, which is employees working as hard as they can for as little pay and few benefits as possible. I agree with a comment on my earlier post, that it’s difficult to decide what’s the chicken and what’s the egg here – who influences whom the most, plutocrats or theocrats – but there’s little doubt that there is a mutual benefit to the relationship between the two, and the loser is you and me.

If I can digress a bit – I’m sure this relationship between those with economic authority and those with spiritual authority has been around for as long as we humans have organized ourselves into groups larger than extended families. It’s easy to imagine that the first leaders of human tribes were those individuals with physical prowess. Being able to run faster, throw a spear with greater accuracy and force, and fight off competing tribes would undeniably be rewarded with greater status – along with a bigger share of the hunt, a higher quality hut or tent, and access to more desirable mating partners. His power (and leaders in this sort were/are always men) might be limited in some ways – tribal traditions, filial concerns, etc., but it is safe to say that the earliest warrior-chiefs would have been the mightiest members of their tribes.

This ‘might makes right’ way of doing things explains 90% or more of our recorded history – most all of our political boundaries exist as they do today because someone was able (or not) to kick someone else’s butt off of a particular piece of property. Angles and Saxons ended up in the British Isles because Huns and Mongols mostly ran them out of their German homelands. The Swiss and their ancestors have inhabited the Alps for centuries because it has been a fairly easy territory to defend. And the manifest destiny of European Americans was largely fulfilled through ugly force – not because of any claims of ‘superior culture’. Bringing that up to our current times – no one runs a Microsoft operating system or buys a General Motors automobile because they make the best product – both companies put a lot of effort into stabbing competitors in the back or buying them out to get to where they are today.

Enter the ‘shaman’ – this is the beloved Joseph Campbell’s term for a person with religious power in a society. He (or she in this instance, although men have predominated here too) goes by a variety of names – mystic, guru, yogi, pastor, father, priest, nun, monk, to name a few, depending on the culture. While warriors and chiefs were also sometimes mystics, in most cases, the power of the shaman was a separate claim to power apart from physical prowess. One imagines that a spiritual leader is a personality type that could only come along as humans developed psychologically. This individual does not excel at the hunt or physical contests. Often, according to Campbell, there is a physical or psychological calamity in a person’s life that causes him to turn inward to his dreams and thoughts – he is horribly injured in a hunt but miraculously survives, is marked or disfigured in some way – or is not for some reason as terrified by omens such as comets or eclipses as others are. While he cannot throw a spear, he has dreams that seem to predict the future. These dreams put him in contact with the dead – Campbell and others postulate that the first primitive religions were based on the fact that people we love continue to exist in our dreams after they die – leading us to believe that they must still exist on some other plane.

There are entire college courses if not major areas of studies that go into these ideas in depth – well beyond my area of expertise. It’s not hard to see, however, that the warrior and the shaman would do better working together than in opposition. A chief who attacks an enemy and fails might lose his clout within the tribe, as well as his fine hut, wife – or even head. How convenient if a shaman can place the blame elsewhere. A shaman can be easily out-muscled by a warrior, so of course it’s in his self-interest to interpret dreams that reflect favorably on the chief – and well, you can put two and two together from this point. Over time, resources are increasingly taken from the tribe to provide more for the princes and priests. You, the modern day Christian, are comparatively lucky that your church wants only ten percent and your employer pays you wages that keep your head just slightly above water. In the first cities, the vast majority of people were serfs, while the elite built palaces and temples of such grandiosity that some remain to this day.

In my opinion, it is the ideas of the Enlightenment alone that keep this from being true today.

I’ve said all that to say this: religion does not make for good economic policy, nor does a warrior-like survival of the fittest. Logic would dictate that if I work harder or longer hours, I should be compensated in greater measure. This is not happening in the US today. Many jobs that used to be hourly have been turned into ‘management’ jobs as to escape paying overtime. We are once again becoming serfs – powerful corporations and religious beliefs controlling how much work we do, what kind of work we do, how we are payed for it, and pretty much every other factor that makes up our working life. And our shamans, our clergy, twist their own scriptures around to oppress the lower classes for the benefit of the rich.

I do not prove myself as one of the ‘elect’ by working harder for less. Work is NOT its own reward – money, security, and personal fulfillment are just rewards for our labor. The sooner we get the plutocrats and theocrats out of economic policy, the better.

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Shoulders of Giants

In Blogging the Bible, Blogging the New Testament on May 21, 2012 at 12:53 am
Sisyphus, 1920


I hope you’re enjoying my comments on 1 Thessalonians – I plan to wrap up this short letter in one or two more posts later this week. I know my secular outlook on how Paul’s teachings play out in everyday American life might not be exactly the sort of exegesis everyone is looking for – believers will probably feel I’m being overly critical, non-believers may think I’m not critical enough. Since Christians rather loudly proclaim that all of our ills as a nation could be solved if we’d just follow the teachings of the Bible, I think it’s a fair response to examine those teachings – verse by verse – and see if their claim is valid. So far, it’s a mixed bag.

I’ve been thinking today about some of the influences that have been instrumental in shaping my worldview, and the Bible has to be right there at the top. In fact, I think you can’t really understand Western civilization without some understanding of the teachings of Jesus and the apostles.

My appreciation for the scriptures – and the way I read them – comes from my Dad. Dad pastored a number of evangelical / charismatic / Pentecostal churches over a span of nearly four decades, and I think it’s a shame that his congregations never numbered more than a few dozen. In spite of listening to him preach 2-3 times a week until I was in my mid-20s, I always thought he was one of the most interesting preachers I had ever heard. Dad was a real believer in expository preaching as opposed to topical sermons, which is what gave his sermons some real meat.

Topical preachers tend to get an idea for a sermon based on what they want to say to their flock – or what ax they have to grind – and look around for a few verses here and there that appear to support their ideas. This is by far the most popular method in American churches, and constitutes probably 100 percent of the sermons you hear on radio and TV. I think this is how Christians get some pretty messed up ideas  – especially those who never bother to read much for themselves. You can pretty much get the Bible to say whatever you want it to say this way. Dad used to jokingly illustrate this point by putting together Matthew 27:5 and Luke 10:37, “And (Judas) cast down the pieces of silver in the temple, and departed, and went and hanged himself. Go, and do thou likewise.”

An expository approach uses a complete text – usually an entire chapter – and looks at what the writer has to say in the proper context. It helps to understand some of the circumstances surrounding the particular writing – who wrote it, to whom was it written, what circumstances did the writer feel compelled to address, etc. This kind of reading / preaching is likely to reflect the original intent of the scripture more accurately, and tends to discredit pet doctrines that have been assembled by cherry picking verses from here and there. In other words, study what the writer actually says and let the topics arise from the text itself. I hope you can see evidence of this in my approach to writing this blog.

Another influence on my personal philosophy was an essay I read in college, Albert Camus‘ Myth of Sisyphus.  It is such a powerful work that I dropped out of school for a semester when I first read it so that I could devote more time to thinking about it. His description of the ‘absurd man’ gave me meaning and hope at a time in my life when nothing else did, least of all the faith of my youth. His ideas are existential in the best sense of the word; he advises how to continue existing when it seems there’s no reason to do so. If I’d never read Camus, my life would have certainly gone in another direction; I most definitely would never have chosen to live abroad for a decade.

A number of professors introduced me to the writings of Joseph Campbell, which greatly influenced my views on the nature of the scriptures. Once you’ve read a flood story that pre-dates Noah by a thousand years, it’s hard to view the latter as ‘fact’. The same goes for the virgin birth, Jesus’ descent into hell, his resurrection, and a number of other phenomena I had previously thought exclusive to the Bible narrative. Being exposed to what Campbell has to say doesn’t necessarily mean you have to stop believing, but you do have to believe in a different way. I had always heard from church folks that stories from other cultures that seemed to mimic Biblical ones were simply copy-cat versions, inspired by the Devil to try to confuse people. That must be one clever Devil to copy stories sometimes hundreds of years before the originals.

There is a half-remembered interview between Campbell and Bill Moyers that I’d love to come across again – it may be more of a mental collage I’ve made that incorporates some of his ideas with those of Douglas Adams and others; if anyone has a clearer idea of what I’m referring to, please point me in the right direction. In the interview, he compares the religion we grow up with to the software that’s installed on your computer when you buy it. There’s really no need to get rid of it, as long as it allows you to you to accomplish your goals and enjoy your experiences. Sometimes, however, there’s a problem. You come across a situation that your software wasn’t designed to handle. You’re presented with problems that you are ill-equipped to solve. You can’t enjoy certain applications that the creators of the old software were unable to foresee the need for. When you try to force things along anyway, a crash occurs. If it’s your computer, you can throw it away and buy a new one; if it’s your life, things are a bit more complicated.

Modifying your religious beliefs is akin to upgrading your software – no one uses MS DOS anymore, because you couldn’t get it to do anything you wanted it to do – watch a video, download a song, or edit your photos. Yet there are thousands if not millions of people in the world today who are trying to navigate through the 21st century with a 500-year-old translation of a 2000-year-old book. Dan Dennet and Richard Dawkins are telling us that we need to throw out that old operating system, switch to Linux or iOS or something radical.

Before I even think about doing that, I’m going to read through that old instruction manual one more time. I hope you’ll join me.