“That Old Time Religion” is a great, old, traditional hymn. We love it. There’s a version of it on the BDSR Bandcamp, as “That Old Time Distortion”, which you can download for free. From an objective position, however, “That Old Time Religion” is slightly flawed as a hymn because it isn’t about the glory or mercy of the Almighty, or how nice it’s going to be when we get to Heaven, or about the awful price Jesus paid on Calvary to redeem us all from sin. It’s about how much better things used to be, which is kind of an odd subject for a hymn. “I don’t want to develop new insights or even have a direct, personal experience of the Divine”, is what “That Old Time Religion” seems to be saying. “I don’t wanna grow up.”
Those familiar with The Power Of Myth, (and if you aren’t, we highly recommend you become so, STAT), may recall Smokin’ Joe Campbell’s rendition of “That Old Time Religion” which contained the lyrics
Let us worship Aphrodite
She’s beautiful but flighty
She doesn’t wear a nightie
She’s good enough for me
The point of Campbell’s version is that there are a lot of “old time” religions, many predating Christianity, a point worth making, but not what we’re on about right now.
The gyst of the traditional version of “That Old Time Religion” is that modern society is all complicated and weird and we should return to a simpler, more righteous form of life centered around the little brown church in the vale, or some other humble meeting place, almost certainly in a rural setting, where God-fearing people congregate to sing praises to the one, true and only God, who sent His Son Jesus Christ to die on the Cross for the sins of mankind which mankind was deceived into committing by the woman that God made for man who was tempted by the serpent who was actually an angel who fell from Heaven and so on. We don’t know when, exactly, this better form of religion was current, but it’s reasonable to place it somewhere in the vicinity of 1850-1950. That’s a wide margin and totally a guess. The song seems to fit in that area, in a sleepy, yet hard working, Southern community, where blacks know their place, gays don’t exist and women spend a significant portion of their time baking pies and quilting.
If you’ve been listening to conservative talk radio lately, you’ve heard a lot of right-wing assholes yammering on about we should all get back to “our” Christian values. Things were, apparently, better for everybody, back when everybody behaved the way they were supposed to, before people stopped going to church every Sunday and things got all weird.
That’s a load of bullshit, obviously – there never was a time when everybody was a simple, God-fearin’ Christian, not even in the rural South. There have always been people doing things the Bible says they oughtn’t, and the God-fearin’ Christians of the rural South are the people who got together in the evenings and formed chapters of the Ku Klux Klan. Not all of ‘em, of course, but the KKK is a self-proclaimed Christian organization, so it’s not a totally incorrect statement. Women, Hispanics and the LGBT’s have made major advances in recent years and may someday be able to enjoy the full cornucopia of basic human rights guaranteed to all Americans, maybe, despite the valiant efforts of God-fearin’ Christians. The Big Drum In The Sky Religion fully endorses and celebrates the achievements made by all marginalized peoples in their quest for equality.
It is certainly true, however, that Christianity provided a framework in which people lived. Blacks, gays and women knew where they fit into the system. There were established limits for everybody. The situation might’ve been pretty shitty, but it was clear. You knew who you were. You knew what was expected of you. Breaking down the old systems was/is necessary to create a more equitable and just world, but it leaves us with broken systems or none at all. That’s where we are right now – in a transitional period between the end of the old and the rise of the new. That’s why we live in such interesting times. There is no secure, established paradigm right now. Society has fragmented into countless splinter groups, each one it’s one cult(ure), none of them invested in the larger society. Even Christianity is fragmented into dozens of factions, each opposed to the minute details of the others. The scaffolding that used to hold up our society has been ripped down and now there’s nothing.
Which is fine. The old scaffolding, mainly Christianity, was good for a while. It kept things going. But it was also grossly unjust and – worse – unwilling to change. Christianity is a religion of the Book and because the Book cannot change, Christianity cannot change. They could, of course, treat the whole Book like metaphor and have no trouble, but they’ve chosen not to do that, which is why they’ve been on the ropes for five-hundred years. In the most recent hundred years or so, such massive shifts have occurred, both in the realms of social justice and our knowledge about the universe, that there’s no way any reasonable person can believe what the Bible says. Pope Francis has done his Church a lot of good by simply stating that he believes what science shows and we should all try to be a bit more compassionate and loving, which is what Jesus said. Whether he can pull the Church out of the ditch remains to be seen, but this Espresso Shaman hopes he can.
Times change. Societies change. If a religion refuses to keep up, that religion will get left behind. Hindus don’t have these problems, because they acknowledge that their myths are metaphors. They don’t claim that there is an actual god with blue skin and six arms, who keeps the universe going by dancing. Consequently, Hinduism, which is the oldest practiced religion, isn’t obsolete. It changes with the times. Actually, Hinduism is even more interesting now because so much of what the yogis have been saying for thousands of years has been shown to be true by quantum physics.
Lead, follow or get outta the fuckin’ way. Christianity won’t disappear – there are still Jains in various places, somehow. But some new form of having a relationship with the Divine will appear. Possibly – though very improbably – Christians will finally fess up to the fact that it ain’t fact; it’s metaphor. If you read the Bible as fact, it makes no sense whatsoever; read as metaphor, it’s exactly right. Check out Genesis 1 and 2, KJV. The creation story there is impossible to reconcile with anything we know about reality, though they did pretty much get the order of things right – universe, Earth, plants, animals in the water and on land, humans. Read it as metaphor, as a symbolic story less about the origin of the planet and life on it, more about the lived experience of individuals, and it makes perfect sense.
My daughter, the Spotted Opossum, was born a perfectly innocent, little Eve, completely ignorant of the harsh nature of life and totally unaware of sexuality. Now, at six, she’s still pretty innocent. She likes girls and doesn’t like boys, though she tolerates me pretty well. She is becoming aware that the world doesn’t exist to please her, but she still gets upset when it doesn’t. As she grows, she will, inevitably and naturally, leave her privileged and pure childhood state behind. In Genesis, this is a fall. Many other cultures recognize that something is lost when childhood ends, but they perceive it as an elevation in status, not a tragic fall from grace. That’s how I see it too. I take the serpent, symbol of the eternal processes of nature, at his word – eat of the fruit and ye will become as God is, fully conscious, self-directed and creative.
The grrrl understands metaphor. She brought me a book at the local kids’ museum one day, a creationist version of Genesis 2 for kids. She wanted me to read it to her, so I did, leaving out a couple of completely ridiculous passages, like the one about how there were dinosaurs in Eden.
“Is that right, Daddy? Did God make the world in a week?”
I explained that it was just a story, a way of talking about how the world came into existence. Really, we know that the world was formed over a period of millions of years and it took millions more for plants to come about and then millions more for fish and so on. She understands that. She displays no cognitive dissonance when it comes to stories that don’t match up with observed reality. Stories are stories, which doesn’t mean they aren’t meaningful. They are meaningful. Stories can and do offer very good lessons about life, even if – especially when – they aren’t rooted in reality as we perceive it.
So, the moral of this is – it’s a fucking metaphor, for Christ’s sake. Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, Jainism, Taoism, Shinto, all the various sundry tales told by tribal elders on reservations or hiding in jungles, they’re all metaphors. That doesn’t mean they’re just fantasy, by the way. A metaphor must be a metaphor for something – there has to be a thing being referenced or a metaphor ain’t one. There are mysterious forces at work and play which are beyond our grasp. Ask any quantum physicist if you don’t believe me. These forces have some impact on our lives, though I do admit that I’m not relying on them 100% to fix my transmission.
Metaphors be with you.
Brown Hat the Espresso Shaman
The pun is always intended.