M Is for Mary

While pre-celebrating Christmas with some friends recently, the topic of cats came up. This really isn’t surprising since two of the families present had been members of the local 4-H cats club. For a while cats were ubiquitous on the internet, but since I have so little time to browse the web anymore, I’m not sure if that’s still the case. Nevertheless, being near Christmas, someone narrated a story I’d never heard before. Tabby cats (like many jungle cats) have a distinctive marking in the form of an “M” on their foreheads. The legend suggests that on the first Christmas a tabby cat was in the manger. Seeing a mouse trying to crawl into the trough were baby Jesus lay, the cat killed the mouse, earning the thanks of Mary, who kissed it on the forehead, bestowing her characteristic M. It is a nice story (apart from the point of view of the mouse, I suppose)—an etiology to explain an evolutionary development in fur patterns.

Blessed is M...

Blessed is M…

Shortly after that my wife sent me a story on the BBC about the oldest inscribed human artifact. Zigzag marking found on a fossilized clam shell from Indonesia suggest that Homo erectus was an abstract thinker, I’m told. The markings, which must at least be 430,000 years old, predate the earliest known human markings by 300,000 years. If accepted by anthropologists this evidence could rewrite all of human history. We had no idea that Homo erectus had time to doodle on shells. Looking at the photos accompanying the BBC article, I couldn’t help but notice they’re in the shape of an M. Perhaps Mary kissed these shells too? So etiologies begin.

If you’ll pardon me for attempting to brush off my training in ancient languages, Mary of Nazareth was likely born into an Aramaic-speaking family. Her name, Mariam, would have been spelled with mem, which, although representing water is some scripts, took roughly this form: מ (assuming the Imperial Aramaic alphabet). If Mary were both historical and literate (the latter, at least, is doubtful) she would not have recognized the tabby’s distinctive mark as part of her name. It would have been an abstract symbol. Of course, God, being a natural lover of cats, may have had the Greek alphabet in mind, where the letter mu gives us our classical capital M. Mary, however, would probably still not have known what to make of it. We love to attribute significances to perceived patterns. The tabby’s distinctive M, as well as Homo erectus’s early exercises in penmanship present us with opportunities to continue making myths. And we should keep the myths in Christmas.

Moral Animals

CanAnimalsBeMoralFor all of my life that I can remember, I have felt an affinity with animals. Even when I was relentlessly taught that evolution was wrong—Satanic even—I still held onto the idea that animals are more like us than they are different. I know this is partially the great sin of anthropomorphism (although I secretly doubt it is a mortal sin), but when I’ve interacted with animals, or watched them interact with each other, they’ve convinced me that they’re thinking. Since, however, we are the very top of the food-chain, we can’t allow such things. That’s why I turn to philosophy. Perhaps public transit isn’t the best place to appreciate fully a book of philosophy, but it’s the only time I have. Those who think categorically and with such rigid logic surely must have something to say on the issue of our fellow creatures. Mark Rowlands’s Can Animals Be Moral? is one of those books that might not be best read on a bus. I found myself constantly wanting to draw diagrams to visualize the course of his thought as we hit another pothole, or an angry bird killed a green pig in the next seat over.

While the animal stories that make such an engaging case are not a major part of Rowlands’s book, they nevertheless, for many of us lesser thinkers, seal the deal. When an animal acts in a way that shows its own lack of self-interest (how un-human!) we should sit up and pay attention. The question of morality, however, is thorny. Philosophers of ethics and religious analysts of the same seldom come near one another in their conclusions. We don’t know why we think morally, but it is clear we often do. It is obvious that it isn’t solely because of religion, although religion sometimes has a hand in it. It is, at the end of the day, a matter of feeling what is right. I feel that it is right to treat animals as thinking, feeling creatures. But are they moral?

Rowlands shows that some of the implications of animal morality can be serious. It was not that long ago that some animals were put on trial for the harm they’d putatively caused. Some were executed. (I wonder if they were eaten afterward?) If we attribute morality to animals, can they be blamed for their actions? Here is where the brilliance of Rowlands’s carefully argued book comes out—animals can be moral subjects without being moral agents. That is to say, they can act morally, but they can’t reason it out. I’m sure that I’m not saying this right, but the basic idea still appeals to me. Reading his final chapter on how moral Martians might view the naked apes of this planet gave me the chills. When we take ourselves off the top of the food-chain, the view becomes very sobering indeed. Would we want to be treated by Martians the way we treat animals on our own planet? Morality lies at the answer to that hypothetical question.

Foundation and Empire

Foundation_gnomeIn a childhood full of science fiction I’m sure I read much material that was too sophisticated for me. After all, I grew up in a working-class family where politics amounted to lambasting the incumbent because things still weren’t getting any better. Even the conservative super-hero Ronald Reagan was mostly remembered for the government-issue cheese we received for free. We called it “Reagan Cheese.” In that setting much of Isaac Asimov’s Foundation trilogy must have been far beyond me. Still, I dutifully plowed through all three volumes as any budding science-fiction nerd was expected to. It was a required piece of the curriculum along with Frank Herbert’s Dune. Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land would have to wait until adulthood. I remember rooting for the cosmic empire—the symbol of law and order—unaware that similar systems would eventually find me as a fifty-something, educated man unemployable for years at a time. Science fiction doesn’t bestow the ability to see the future.

Then I read a recent issue of Books and Culture, the bi-monthly publication review by Christian Century. An article by Philip Jenkins, reviewing a book I’ve not read, started off with a reference to Asimov’s trilogy. Suddenly I found myself transported hundreds of miles and two-score years from Midtown Manhattan to rural western Pennsylvania in barely adequate housing, holding Foundation and Empire close to my face. Jenkins, a noted historian of religion, was pointing out that Asimov often drew from Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire and based his character of the Mule—those of you who’ve read the trilogy remember him, I’m sure—on Mohammed. The thought had never occurred to me that the science-oriented mind of Asimov would ever delve into religion for inspiration. Still, with the little I recall of the story, it does seem to add up.

In fact, much of science fiction is deeply dependent on religion. Science fiction dares to dream of the future, and no matter how technical that future becomes, the religious are still there. Last century bold claims were made that we’d be living in the twilight years of religion by now. Mid-term elections fueled by religious fervor prove the pundits wrong yet again. Organized religion, fledgling or fully adult, is a political animal. Religion and politics are both about how we interact with one another as a society. It may seem that the concepts behind religious thought are unsubstantiated myths that transcend the mechanistic world in which we live. Even so, they continue to drive revolutions large and small. And somewhere in the attic I still have my copy of the Foundation trilogy ready to be seen by grown-up eyes. Or better yet, through the credulous eyes of a child.

Overcoming Justice

In college a friend I’ve lost track of (and I have, of most of them) turned me on to Irish protest music. I do have some fairly direct Irish heritage, although I didn’t know it at the time, still the righteous anger tied to memorable tunes made a strong impression. Music can move you in that way. In a recent New Jersey Star-Ledger article on protest songs, Lisa Leff raises the poignant question of where the protest songs have gone. In the aftermath of the travesty of justice in both the Michael Brown and Eric Garner cases, we find ourselves musically mute. As I sat in the theater awaiting Exodus, the preview of Selma brought tears to my eyes. Martin Luther King Junior knew the power of peaceful protest. “We Shall Overcome” featured in the trailer. Would there be an exodus after all of this at all? We used to voice our discontent. Now we click on to the next page, oblivious.


Justice has become a myth for many. Please understand, I’m professionally bound not to use “myth” in a pejorative way. No, justice has become a myth. Fear is powerful, and power is fearful. Juries are supposed to be impartial. Who is really not afraid? Why don’t we sing in the dark instead of drawing our weapons and firing? Why don’t we believe “I can’t breathe” is a statement made in earnest? Why don’t we insist on the “for all” part of the pledge? After all, even some recent presidents not known for their sense of social justice have pointed out that these court decisions are puzzling. I wonder where I put those old Irish protest-song records?

Anything you say can and will be used against you. I don’t know what to say. We have lost the ability to experience justifiable outrage. We see powerful lobbies continue to arm the mentally unstable while one percent hordes the wealth that could be used to help fund the solutions. If you walk past Trump Tower you’ll see that visitors are not welcome in one of the highest buildings in the city. We have forgotten how to sing. These most recent cases of Brown and Garner are only the most recent cases. Violence in the name of law has gone on for too long. I’m afraid when I rush past the fatigues in the Port Authority on my way to work. But I am a white man. Do they know that I used to listen to Irish protest music? I wonder where I put those records. Wait a minute, there’s something new in the iTunes store.

Weathering the Storm

WeatheringThePsalmsI had almost forgotten the validation of being published. Colleagues sometimes ask me if I’m still working on any books without realizing that employment in publishing, with rare instances, constitutes a conflict of interest. Editors are acquirers of content, not producers thereof. As I’ve been preparing Weathering the Psalms for release on the world, I often consider how differently all this may have turned out, should I have found academic employment after Nashotah House. The day my contract was terminated, I was working on this book. It had recently been declined by Oxford University Press, and the reviewer (whom I had unwittingly met) had informed me that the book wasn’t really salvageable. It was a jumble of data with no narrative thrust. I was working on giving the data a different frame when I was called to the Dean’s office and told to read a legal memo in the presence of a lawyer. Every time I tried to turn back to my book after that, the nightmarish scene replayed in my head. Besides, I had to try to find a job.

It was only when working for what I thought was a stable Routledge that I had the chance to revisit the manuscript. Ironically, it was only after I was no longer in a position to do research that colleagues began to approach me to review submissions for journals, to invite me to write articles, and to express an interest in my research. Of course, it was too late for me to begin full-fledged research again. Despite the internet, scholars require two things I did not (do not) have: access to a university library, and time. Early on in my commuting days I discovered that the quality of the time on the bus did not allow for in-depth research. Too many other passengers have too many other agendas. I can read on the bus, and sometimes academic books, but anyone who’s tried to take notes when crammed into the space usually taken up by a backpack knows the difficulty of writing notes without the use of your arms or hands, over the constant electronic noise of your neighbor’s unsilenced electronic games.

All of which is to say that I’m very pleased to see Weathering the Psalms is out. Like a child untimely born—at the risk of sounding biblical—the book is being printed as I write. Working in publishing I know better than to expect phenomenal sales, still, many of my readers over the years have said they’d buy a copy if it was ever published. If you’re serious about that, take a look at the website of Wipf & Stock and click on the Cascade Books imprint. Finishing this book has, I must admit, awakened a hunger. I have, of course, started to write another. It may be another decade in the making, and, should it ever garner the attention of a publisher, a similar post may come along before I’m too old to think clearly. The ideas are there; the opportunity to express them is not. Still, despite the cruel vagaries of academia, I feel as though I’ve received a small validation, and I am very grateful for the honor. Wipf & Stock offers a service that other academic presses might do well to emulate. It’s not all about the earning potential of a title. Sometimes it’s just a storm.

Real Devotion

StatuesThatWalkedEaster Island instantly brings up images of massive statuary and mystery. From childhood (and that will likely continue for some time due to Night at the Museum) the sensationalized accounts of these eerie statues appeal to our sense of wonder. And they should. Still, as Terry Hunt and Carl Lipo demonstrate in their informative book, The Statues That Walked, the island is more than it first might seem. A small, extremely isolated bit of volcanic rock in the south Pacific, Rapa Nui—the native name for Easter Island—has never been a lush paradise. Its volcanic soil long ago depleted, it was only occupied from about 1000 CE, and then only marginally. In fact, were it not for the moai, nobody would probably have paid much attention to it. Even today this remote island draws thousands of visitors, despite its lack of luxury, because of these huge-headed, silent statues. And who but a specialist would read a book about the island if the moai were not featured?

Hunt and Lipo are archaeologists and anthropologists. Their interest is not primarily in mystery, yet after beginning their fieldwork on Rapa Nui, they felt compelled to turn their attention to the huge statues. Their book, in fact, takes its title from the moai, and soon settles in to a discussion of them. They are, not surprisingly, religious symbols. Many people would probably prefer that critically minded scientists leave their favorite mysteries alone. Yet the story of the moai is fascinating, and still unexplained in the larger sense of why people in a subsistence-level situation would expend so much effort on religion. Hunt and Lipo suggest the moai are examples of costly signaling—the evolutionary principle of the peacock’s tail. Even people with barely enough to eat will put enormous effort in demonstrating to their neighbors that they have the favor of the gods.

Other ancient Polynesians also built statues. On Rapa Nui it grew to a kind of religious obsession. Hunt and Lipo propose a perfectly naturalistic way that the massive statues could have been, and probably were, moved across the island. More importantly, they uncover that the inhabitants probably did not indulge in ecocide, cutting down all the trees. There were other culprits involved. After European discovery of the island, it was time and again devastated by disease. Although they don’t come out and say so in the book, European contact probably contributed to the abandonment of the great statues, many of them still in situ at their quarry. The moai likely represent ancient ancestors in a culture where veneration of the same is the basis for a natural religion. I won’t reveal any spoilers here since The Statues That Walked is an important book to read on many levels. And, although it doesn’t make this claim, it shows that religion will likely always be part of history’s great feats of lasting intrigue.

Not Your Grandma’s Moses

Exodus Gods and Kings

Exodus: Gods and Kings is, in many ways, a startling movie. It didn’t leave me with a strong impression of profundity, but it did make me a bit reflective. The media hype about God as an eleven-year-old boy proved to be merely hype. In fact, the boy deity was one of the most intriguing characters in the film. The role was played respectfully, and God, like a good Englishman, favored his tea. There was nothing comedic about it, however. More troubling was the agnostic Moses, à la Clash of the Titans with its unbelieving Perseus. Moses, even after meeting God, comes across as having little interior life. He hides in a cave and builds an army of terrorists making him seem like Moses bin Laden. He conceals himself while innocent Hebrews are hanged for his crimes (and did they even hang people in ancient Egypt?). When a great storm brews over Memphis, however, it is with a sense of wonder that we ponder at an eleven-year-old doing all this.

The movie plays lightly with the scholarly “explanations” that used to be doled out in seminaries about how one plague led to another. In fact, the character called “the Expert” in the credits is shown lecturing the Pharaoh on the causation scheme of clay churning up in the Nile turning it red, and killing the fish which in turn drove the frogs from the toxic water, but when they died flies came along and the flies spread disease. Then the Expert is hanged. Not so subtle a warning to biblical scholars. In fact, there seems to be a science behind much of the movie that makes miracles less acts of God than acts of nature. Even the drying of the Red Sea is understated. Its return is reminiscent of the Christmas Tsunami of 2004. God is sometimes not there when you’d expect a deity to care.

On the matter of caring, for an age of nones who have concerns for equality, the film was thin on women’s roles, making even the Bible appear to foreground them more. Sigourney Weaver—great in any context—seems only to be there to wish Moses dead. Even Miriam is given scant lines in the movie and no role in the Exodus itself. In Prince of Egypt she at least led her famous song. Zipporah is lovely but shows no sign of being as handy with a flint knife as Exodus makes her out to be. A woman of action. Miriam’s quick thinking saved the infant Moses. Overall, however, the Bible is a guy’s book, and Exodus is a guy’s flick. Opening with the battle of Qadesh on the Orontes is a way to draw men to a Bible movie. Lots of slashing, gashing, and charging horses. And the splendor of Egypt, filmed in Spain and the Canary Islands. Some miracles, it seems, are even impossible for CGI.