Monthly Archives: September 2014

John 8:32 on campus

I was in my office on campus today (yes, on a Saturday), grading papers. At one point I looked out my window at an arch that cuts through my building. Over the arch is a quotation from the New Testament, John 8:32. “Ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.” I thought: Why have I never blogged about this?

The arch as seen through my window. Taken with the cheap digital camera on my MP3 player, so the slogan's illegible.

The arch as seen through my window. Taken with the cheap digital camera on my MP3 player, so the slogan’s illegible.


A legible version.

I’m not aware that there’s any other building on campus adorned with a biblical quotation. The building was constructed shortly after World War II, so I assume we should attribute the quotation to the “religion boom” that also inscribed the words “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance. The John 8:32 quote has the virtue of being biblical yet non-descript–hinting at a Christian or Judeo-Christian heritage while leaving the contents of “the truth” wide open. Perfect for 1950s-era religious liberalism.

While surfing the web for photos of the arch, I discovered a student essay published in the campus newspaper last year. The student, a conservative Christian evidently, complains that too many at the university no longer believe in absolute truth. Thus 1950s-era religious liberalism has become a nostalgic refuge for 21st-century Christian conservatism.

Recently I was walking under the famous Upham Hall arch. […] I have made this walk countless times, but on this occasion the block letter words spanning across the apex of the arch caught my attention. Coldly graven into the moss-tinted cement were the words, “You shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free.” I was surprised the iconic Miami building had these words boldly posted on it. Ironically, many of the professors and students who work and study between the walls of Upham Hall do not believe in Truth. […]

The engraved words about truth now perched across Upham Hall were once spoken by Jesus 2,000 years ago. Interestingly, near the time of his crucifixion he was asked the same question many of us are still asking today. […] Pilate showed an indifference to what Jesus had to reply, revealing he did not really want an answer to his question. I wonder sometimes if we truly want an answer. Do we really want to know truth? Or are we satisfied asking the question, reveling in our sophistication, but not waiting around to hear a coherent answer? Until we decide we want to know the truth, we will never find the answer, and words about truth will continue to be cold, meaningless and moss-covered symbols on our campus.

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John Eliot’s “Indian Dialogues”

In my intro course to American religion, we recently read some excerpts from John Eliot’s “Indian Dialogues,” written around 1670. The dialogues were intended to help train Native converts to Christianity (Massachusett converts to Puritanism, to be more precise) to serve as missionaries to their people. In the imagined dialogue, a missionary named Piumbukhou returns to a village called Nashaurreg (apparently after an absence of 20 years, based on clues dropped during the conversation), where he tries to explain to his relatives why their traditions are now dung in his mouth compared to the sweet honey of Christianity. The style of Piumbukhou’s preaching feels quintessentially Puritan–systematized, long-winded, and, let’s be frank, boring except when he’s unleashing polarizing metaphors to condemn unregenerate Native ways (like the dung/honey metaphor I just paraphrased).

I presume that the questions and challenges posed to Piumbukhou by his Native interlocutors are based on questions Eliot had actually encountered. I was particularly intrigued, therefore, by this interchange. (Note that the non-Christian Natives, unlike the Christianized Piumbukhou, don’t get names.)

KINSMAN. […] But how shall I know that you say true? Our forefathers were (many of them) wise men, and we have wise men now living. They all delight in these our delights. They have taught us nothing about our soul, and God, and heaven, and hell, and joy and torment in the life to come. Are you wiser than our fathers? May not we rather think that English men have invented these stories to amaze us and fear us out of our old customs, and bring us to stand in awe of them, that they might wipe us of our lands, and drive us into corners, to seek new ways of living, and new places too? And be beholding to them for that which is our own, and was ours, before we knew them.

ALL. You say right.

Note that Eliot represents this as a generally held suspicion on the part of the Natives: “All” the spectators agree with the Kinsman. Eliot’s response, in the mouth of Piumbukhou:

PIUM. The Book of God is no invention of Englishmen. It is the holy law of God himself, which was given unto man by God, before Englishmen had any knowledge of God; and all the knowledge which they have, they have it out of the Book of God. And this book is given to us as well as to them […] Yet this is also true, that we have great cause to be thankful to the English, and to thank God for them. For they had a good country of their own, but by ships sailing into these parts of the world, they heard of us, and of our country, and of our nakedness, ignorance of God, and wild condition. God put it into their hearts to desire them to come hither, and teach us the good knowledge of God; and their King gave them leave so to do, and in our country to have their liberty to serve God according to the word of God. And being come hither, we gave them leave freely to live among us. They have purchased of us a great part of those lands which they possess. They love us, they do us right, and no wrong willingly. If any do us wrong, it is without the consent of their rulers, and upon our complaints our wrongs are righted. They are (many of them, especially the ruling part) good men, and desire to do us good.

Eliot seems a touch sensitive here. “We could have stayed back in England, where things were fine for us,” he insists, “but instead we crossed the ocean to bring the gospel to you naked, wild savages out of the goodness of our hearts”–except, of course, being a good Calvinist, he has to clarify that God put that goodness in their hearts. I note that Eliot feels the need to invoke two different sources of legitimation for English colonization: first, the charter that the Puritans received from the king of England; but of course that doesn’t mean squat to the Massachusetts, so he adds, “Plus, you gave us permission to live here.” And, he continues, we’ve paid for, um, “a great part,” at least, of the lands we now possess.

Eventually a “kinswoman” tries to shut Piumbukhou down this way:

KINSWOMAN. You make long and learned discourses to us which we do not well understand. I think our best answer is to stop your mouth, and fill your belly with a good supper, and when your belly is full you will be content to take rest yourself, and give us leave to be at rest from these gastering and heart-trembling discourses. We are well as we are, and desire not to be troubled with these new wise sayings.

“Here–accept our hospitality, and stop trying to push your religion onto us.” A losing strategy–in the imagined dialogues and in real life.

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Bumper Stickers: Window to the Soul

A few days ago, my husband found the following note on our windshield when he came out of the gym. The handwriting appears to be that of a young woman, presumably a student from campus.

I love your bumper sticks, you seem like you would have a great soul. Let’s be friends

Her phone number followed.

(By the way: “Bumper sticks”? I’d never encountered that usage.)

I’ve mentioned elsewhere my own interest in bumper stickers as a form of religious expression in public space. These are the bumper stickers on which the note-writer was basing her conclusions about the greatness of my soul. Most of these are my husband’s responsibility more than mine, though I don’t object to any of them.

IMAG0541We haven’t responded to the invitation to call the note-writer–it just doesn’t seem appropriate, although I worry that not responding could be potentially wounding.

Some weeks ago, someone left a tract on our windshield written by a Seventh-day Adventist criticizing the ecumenical movement. We appeared to be the only targets–i.e., tracts hadn’t been left on the cars around us–so I’m guessing this was a response to the “Coexist” bumper sticker.


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Homosexuality vs. Polygamy

This past July, I attended a luncheon in Salt Lake City–I’ve referred to this before–where I rubbed elbows with foreign scholars who were in the U.S. for a seminar on religion in American society. I was there as an expert on Mormonism, and the conversation turned for a while to Mormon polygamy, historical and contemporary. An Egyptian scholar asked me: If Americans accept gay marriage, why don’t they accept polygamy? I replied that, actually, there does appear to be some measure of increasing sympathy for contemporary Mormon polygamists, as indicated by their positive treatment on TV (Big Love, Sister Wives, Polygamy USA) and by states’ general reluctance to prosecute polygamists for polygamy per se. If, I hypothesized, the Supreme Court ended up ruling in favor of gay marriage, Mormon polygamists would look very closely at that decision to see if its principles could be applied to their case.

In retrospect, I realize that I probably missed the point of the scholar’s question. I suspect, now, that the point of his question was to register surprise that Americans are proving more tolerant of homosexuality than of heterosexual polygamy. Which, when I think about, is certainly not a self-evident state of affairs. Until I started reflecting on this outsider’s question, I had taken for granted, as an American cultural insider, that social acceptance of polygamous relationships represents a “next step” beyond social acceptance of homosexual relationships. But why is that? Why isn’t it the other way around? Why aren’t heterosexual polygamous relationships–because they’re heterosexual–more acceptable than homosexual couplings? I presume that for my Egyptian interlocutor, that last is the more logical way to think about the issue.

I guess what this shows is that for Americans, monogamy is a more fundamental cultural value than heteronormativity. Increasing numbers of Americans–I think polls indicate it’s a narrow majority at this point, yes?–are prepared to re-imagine marriage as the union of two women or two men. But a greater number of us are still inclined to think that a marriage should consist of just two people. Presumably this has a lot to do with the popularization of romantic, companionate models of marriage during the 19th century, which is itself related to the slower shift toward equality for women in modernized Western societies, which in turn is related to the West’s self-perception of its superiority over peoples whom it had or was colonizing–Egyptian Muslims, for example. Eventually, the romantic, companionate model of marriage was expanded to include gay/lesian couples. It’s taking more work to stretch the model to include polygamous couples.

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