Category Archives: Animals

Posts that focus on animals and religion

Once and Future Ape

Battle_for_the_planet_of_the_apesThe original pentalogy of the Planet of the Apes franchise began a slow decline with Beneath the Planet of the Apes. Producing a movie per year from 1970 to 1973, the series died with Battle for the Planet of the Apes. Given that Dawn of the Planet of the Apes has been compared with this original final installment, it seemed time to reacquaint myself with it. The early seventies, as I recall them, were tense times. Social unrest both at home and abroad, coupled with a maddeningly increasing nuclear arsenal, seemed a recipe for disaster. Indeed, the world does end with the second installment of the pentalogy, a scenario set up in the final episode as the Alpha-Omega bomb, guarded by mutants, is declared worthy of reverence. Only through the magic of time travel do Cornelius and Zera travel back to the paranoid 1970s to start the whole series over again. The Battle for the Planet of the Apes, apart from its preachiness, does overflow with religious language and rhetoric. Indeed, it begins with a reading of Scripture from the Lawgiver. Pentalogy or Pentateuch?

Caesar is said to be the savior of apes and, like in the current Dawn, the sympathies of the viewer are with the apes. Gorillas, the frat boys of the ape universe, do indeed cause troubles, with Aldo becoming a kind of Cain who slays a fellow ape, Cornelius. (They even got the initials correct, if reversed.) Religion, and prejudice, it seems, have brought this fictional world to a crux, caught in an endless loop of new futures. As Virgil says, there are an infinite number of lanes on this highway. Presumably, traveling back in time opens up all kinds of possibilities.

Despite the number of reused shots in the film—the first ten minutes or so are simply a recapping of the previous two films—and the unfortunate pacing (how could a climax of two angry apes climbing a tree have possibly dragged on for so long?), the movie does have a message. Race tensions, high at the time, are overtly and covertly addressed. Disarmament is praised. The only future that seems not to exist is for one more movie. Interest moved on to science fiction’s apotheosis in Star Wars just four years later. Once again we would find ourselves in a world of black and white, with simple choices. There was no ambiguity among the Jedi. Still, for all that preaching, equality never did reach its goal. So even with its faults (didn’t we see that same tree-house bombed four times?) it is worth dusting off the Battle for the Planet of the Apes once in a while and pondering better possible futures.

Secular Sacred

IMG_1472On a family walk in the woods, along came a spider. Actually, the spider had already been there quite a while, given the amount of work that its web represented. Few sing the virtues of spider brains, but there is a captivating symmetry here, an aesthetic that nature endows on the work of one of its most feared yet skillful creatures. As I ponder this web, I can’t help but to consider the word sacred. Oh, I don’t suppose the spider is worshipping an eight-legged, arachnid deity, but there is something more than simply utilitarian about its creation. And I wonder why the sacred is so often shuffled off to the realm only of the religious. Increasingly scientists and philosophers are using the word sacred for a trope when superlatives fail. They don’t mean a guy with a beard on a throne in the sky, but rather those things that give us pause in a busy life to stop and think that something more is going on than just the electro-chemical storm in our heads.

At the risk of offending some, the sacred need not be tied to the gods at all. It is, rather, a sense of reverence toward the amazing world in which we find ourselves. Yes, this web can be measured with precision. Its arachnid host captured and studied. We can count the number of insects it catches as a measure of its efficiency. All this and we still won’t have encapsulated the web in its entirety. The sacred is like that. I don’t know why it is that I find some places special. Why it is I linger outside where my childhood homes once stood, or on the hill where stood the hospital in which I entered the world. Although I’m not divine, these places are sacred. So I pull the car to the side of the road and stare at that lot where our house once stood. It was a web. Fragile and necessary. And it was on the edge of the woods.

A walk in the woods is a form of rebirth. Some of my earliest memories are wandering among the trees. I was, like many children, terrified of spiders. No doubt there were thousands of them here. And yet I cannot keep away. Perhaps it is because nearly every day of the week I trundle to Manhattan and there is nothing around me that doesn’t bear the scars of artificiality. I don’t recall the last time I saw a spider in New York City, apart from a man in a blue-and-red costume pretending to be one. I’m sure they’re here. I’m sure they spin their webs and there are those who marvel at how complex and beautiful they are. The unexpected spider will always frighten me, I suppose. That doesn’t mean, however, when I come upon a web, that I haven’t met the secular sacred once more. Especially if it’s on a stroll in the woods.

Fish Fridays

There’s an old myth among Protestants that on Fridays Catholics eat fish because fish are sinless animals. As far as I’ve been able to determine, this is pure fabrication on the part of curious outsiders. Still, it has grown a mythology of its own. Some say that the non-pecuniary piscines are that way because they, naturally, survived the flood. I’ve often wondered how that impacted the fresh-water varieties of fish, or if they evolved after the fact. In any case, the story, it seems, has grown with the telling. Fish on Fridays has nothing to do with the fish and everything to do with the people. And so does standing in line.

DSCN4792The New England Aquarium is, ironically, one of the big draws on a rainy day in Boston. I’ve stood in longer lines before, but after a late night of truncated fireworks and waiting an hour for a T train home after being thoroughly soaked, it is a test of endurance to stand for over an hour-and-a-half in rain encouraged by Hurricane Arthur. To see fish. To find sinlessness. The ocean, it always seems to me, is one of the places where human greed has not yet been fully realized (not that we haven’t tried) but in which we’ve dipped our polluting fingers time and again. Still, fish are fascinating. Watching them make lazy circles around the 200,000-gallon giant ocean tank, the many ways that creatures have evolved to swim enchants me like a kid. Of course, the real draw, for many, is the penguins. Psychologists have explored the human fascination with anthropomorphized animals. Penguins in their “formal attire,” clumsily totter about on two legs and occasionally display very human behavior. At feeding time some are polite, waiting their turn, while others are aggressive and pushy. If someone is too greedy, the bird next in line will push him or her off the rock into the water, where the offender has to come back to the group, having lost his or her place. Where does sin enter this picture?

Seeing fish on Friday has me wondering why we declare some animal behavior sinful and other animal behavior saintly. Wandering the four stories of this aquarium crowded with others seeking to avoid the rain is often like looking into a mirror. Do these animals realize they are trapped? Although the sea lions and seals seem happy and enthusiastic, and the penguins just bored, it is difficult to read the face of a fish. So after a long day standing, my family heads back into the rain, hoping to make it to some restaurant before this rain beats our weary umbrellas into utter submission. There’s almost no traffic today, but one driver speeds through the puddles down the great coastal highway 1, completely soaking those waiting to cross to drier climes. The wall of water coming at us would’ve made Cecil B. DeMille envious. It’s a holiday and I can’t figure what the hurry is as my second and last pair of shoes grows waterlogged from this selfish gesture only to get through the light. I’m pretty certain I’ve discovered where sin is, however, and it is definitely just outside the aquarium.

June Bugs

On my way to work yesterday, I came upon an overturned June bug clawing at the air, trying to regain its feet.  I’m always in a hurry getting to or from work, but I decided to stop, offering the insect a leaf to grip, and turning it back over.  I knew, as I spied birds flying overhead, that its chances weren’t good.  In the course of nature, insects are radically overproduced because so many get eaten.  In my apartment they can even be a source of sudden terror when they find their way inside.  I knew the June bug was probably nearing the end of its short time on the earth, but as I held out that leaf to it, I knew that in the act of struggling we were one.  That sounds terribly Buddhist of me, I know.  Insects and humans share, on the most basic level, the desire to survive.  Who likes to feel vulnerable—soft, unprotected underbelly exposed to the air?  Defenseless and helpless?  Certainly not this poor beetle.

Photo credit: Patrick Coin, Wikimedia Commons

Photo credit: Patrick Coin, Wikimedia Commons

Stepping off the bus in New York City, I began my daily power walk to work.  The bus had arrived a few minutes late, and my anxiety level about clocking in works as if it’s on steroids.  I have to buzz past the interesting things happening in the city, the people who merit a second look, the architecture that has an unexpected amount of detail, only to be lost in the overwhelming number of buildings.  Big buildings as numerous as bugs on a summer morning.  Then I saw a box pulled up on a low sill outside some swank bank.  I often need boxes at work, and I can’t help stopping to appreciate how this unbroken expanse of paperboard would be useful.  Then I noticed the feet sticking out the end.  There was life in this box, not so different from the beetle I’d stopped to help an hour and a half ago, in its exoskeleton, grasping for some kind of salvation.

I arrived at work agitated. I had been able to help the beetle, but what could I do for the sleeping human being in his box? I had no money in my pocket, and even a twenty would stay the exposed, raw human on the city street for no more than a few hours. To care for a person takes commitment, long-term willingness to make sure that those who fall on their backs are set again on their feet, given the resources, the opportunities they need to get along in a world where those circling above are far more dangerous than the birds in my neighborhood. I looked at my calendar. June is nearly over. The June bugs will soon disappear. And yet I couldn’t erase the image from my mind. How much relief seemed to show on that inexpressive June bug face when it could finally crawl away from the center of the sidewalk. Something was terribly wrong here. And a man was sleeping in a box just two blocks away. In the act of struggling we are one.

Jonahado

SharknadoSome movies are so bad that they become classics. Some are just plain bad. The jury in my head is still out on Sharknado. The story, obviously tongue-in-cheek, is so far-fetched as to be pretentious, and anyone who knows something about either sharks or tornadoes, or both, will likely find credibility waning from the first scene. For those sensible among my readers, who’ve not seen the movie, the title gives it all away. A global-warming-induced hurricane hurries toward Santa Monica with its forever young sun-worshippers. The hurricane floods the California coast, bringing sharks to the city streets. As our protagonists drive around somewhat pointlessly, the sharks attack their car, eventually eating everyone who’s not family. At one point the family tries to buy rations at a liquor store, only to have the news announce that this is the apocalypse. The store owner scowls that it’s the government, not God, that’s bringing this upon them. Then the waterspouts appear, morphing into tornadoes carrying sharks, still hungrily chomping at everything as they fly through the air.

Ironically a biblical theme comes about with the swallowing of Nova. As she falls from a helicopter (don’t ask), a great white shark snaps her up in mid-air, and since she’s about the only character you can care about, the movie seems to have reached its nadir. As the tornadoes dissipate and the sharks coming raining down, the eponymously named Fin is swallowed whole by a huge great white, while still holding his chainsaw. We already know that this latter-day Jonah will make his way back out, and we are supposed to be surprised that this is the very same shark that holds the reborn Nova, who admits her real name is Jenny Lynn. Like Neo in The Matrix, she is the convert to a new faith, this time in the family of Fin, whose only fault, it seems, is that he cares too much for others.

While a made-for-television B movie (although C or D might be more appropriate), Sharknado demonstrates the popular conception of the apocalypse. Not that it will involve flying sharks and destructive wind-storms, but that the end of the world is somehow inevitable. We have convinced ourselves that its a matter of when, not if, the world will meet its demise. Global warming, clearly our fault, is blamed by the movie (as is the government), but the story is that the flimsy culture we’ve constructed is subject to utter ruin by a hurricane and maritime predators. Or I could be reading far too much into this. Religious tropes may be picked and chosen at will. And when things really go wrong, like accidentally switching on Sharknado, we have a ready arsenal of religious ideas at hand to blame. And the apocalypse may be the least of our worries.

The One That Got Away

While looking for reviewers for a book proposal on Jonah, I had a strange realization. Few mainstream biblical scholars are interested in the book. Or at least in publishing on it. The same goes for the Bible’s other great watery adventure, Noah’s story. Ironically, these are the stories we, as children, are weaned on. Kids love animals, right? And both Noah’s ark and Jonah’s great fish mastication involve animals, as well as lots of water. Both stories have more than a whiff of the fantastic about them—the kind of thing children can relate to. And yet, biblical scholars, collectively, wonder why few people are interested in their work as they take on the more heady work of unraveling Isaiah or Romans.

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Jonah used to be a test case for the Fundamentalist crowd. You were a “Bible believer” if you could, with steely gaze, claim that Jonah was swallowed by a fish—the Bible doesn’t say “whale”—and survived three days only to be vomited up on the Levantine shore to make his soggy way back to Assyria. Three days swimming in the gastric juices of just about any animal doesn’t do a great deal for a prophet’s credibility. Or physique. And since the story is fantastic, and populist, scholars avoid it like a giant fish. Meanwhile, John and Susie Q. Public want to know about this story—what does it mean? Did it really happen? Why is it in the Bible at all?

My generalization above is somewhat faulty. (What generalization isn’t?) Evangelical scholars still take an active interest in Jonah. Jonah is the stomach-acid test of faith. Since I never really outgrew my love of monster movies and outlandish plot lines (my brothers recently convinced me that I should see Sharknado) I’m fascinated by the tale of Jonah. It is one of the most carefully constructed stories in the Bible, and it clearly has a very counterintuitive message about who is acceptable in God’s eyes—here’s a hint: they live in Nineveh and even dress their animals in sackcloth when they realize they’ve been naughty. The book of Jonah, however, has been condemned for being a puerile tale of a guy who can hold his breath three days, amid chemicals that can dissolve most organic substances, and utter Psalm-like prayers all the while. Fish stories, after all, are something that many folks intuitively know how to interpret.

Saints and Serpents

Santa Barbara feels like paradise.  To a guy who grew up under the gray clouds and sometimes cruel winters of the northeast, the sun-washed placidity of the California coast feels almost surreal.  I’d never witnessed a flight of pelicans before, or visited a university campus that felt more like a spa.  Nothing introduces trouble into paradise like guns.  As we are beginning to try to make sense of yet another mass shooting involving college-aged kids, the somber-faced newscasters talk about how difficult it is to handle mental illness as they fret over seven more coffins that should never have been necessary.  It’s the right of Americans to own guns.  It’s the heritage of many to experience mental illness.  Elliot Rodger only had three guns and over 400 rounds of ammunition in his car.  Where’s Charlton Heston when we need a little comfort now?

 

America’s love affair with firearms is too protracted and entrenched simply to turn back the clock.  Guns are functional devices, but their deterrent force seems effectively only on those who don’t own them.  We’ve opened Pandora’s box and shook the last bit of hope out of it.  College is the stage of growing up where we learn about what life has to offer.  Choosing majors, meeting potential mates, gaining a measure of freedom.  Freedom.  Those who own guns don’t seem to appreciate how unbalanced this makes the rest of us feel.  When I walk behind someone smoking on the city streets, I can’t help but think that I’m doing nothing to foul the smoker’s air.  If only I had a gun.

 

One of the most poignant scenes in the Ellis Island museum is where the potential immigrants are being tested for mental illness.  As a hopeful paradise, we seemed to say, we don’t want to invite any problems ashore.  Mental illness is not the fault of the sufferer.  Making guns available to those who suffer depression and rage is madness.  And despite the rhetoric, the only one with gun in hand who ever seems to stop the rampage is the killer himself, by turning his own on the victim and perpetrator.

 

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Standing on a beach in Santa Barbara, you are looking out over five thousand miles of placid, unbroken, blue water.  The sky and the ocean seem to blend together.  A scoop of pelicans flies overhead, becoming lost in the sun.  And there is a serpent wrapped around a tree somewhere nearby.  There always is.