Category Archives: Cats

Posts that feature either natural or divine cats

Rocket Cats

Franz_Helm_rocket_cat_full_page_1

A few weeks ago the Internet’s attention was captured (if such a thing is possible) by rocket cats. Apparently the brain-child of sixteenth-century artillery expert Franz Helm, the story raised outrage and some giggles and then faded from view. In a recent Chronicle of Higher Education, however, the issue jetted back to life in an academic forum. The article by Steve Kolowich helpfully pointed out that the idea isn’t exactly new. My regular readers know that I advocate for animal rights and I believe most animals are far more intelligent than we deign to admit. In other words, I consider this an inherently bad and distasteful idea. Nevertheless, to look at it academically—Steve Kolowich was referring to the fact that the manuscript, being digitized from Penn University’s library, had been known previously. It went viral when the Associated Press decided to make something of the story. The Internet took an old idea and made it current.

The idea goes like this: a city is under siege and you’re getting impatient. What to do? Strap incendiaries to cats and birds and send them into the city that is guarded against human-sized invaders. Although this does have an evil genius quality to it, I wonder if Franz Helm didn’t get the idea from the good, old Bible. In the commentary on the rocket cats I’ve seen, nobody is giving credit where credit is due. Samson, according to Judges, was fond of the ladies. Not just any ladies, but Philistines in particular. Prior to his wedding he set a riddle for the Philistines to solve and when they pressed the bride-to-be for the answer, Samson ended up owing the Philistines a fair bit of cash. Samson simply killed some Philistines, took their goods, and paid those he owed. Meanwhile, his father-in-law supposed, reasonably enough, that Samson no longer loved his daughter, and gave her to another. In a fit of rage, Samson caught three hundred foxes, tied torches between they tails of each pair, and sent them out to burn up the crops in the field. Substitute city for field and you have Helm’s idea. With steampunkish add-ons.

In an era when the Bible is treated as increasingly irrelevant, the media (and scholars) frequently overlook how important it was to people in the past. You might even say it was inspirational. Despite all that, I’ve met a fair number of clergy who’ve never read the whole thing (it is a big book, after all) and meddlesome laity like yours truly often point out the more uncomfortable aspects of scripture. But even Samson may have to give a nod to the Hittites. Before Israel showed up on the scene, the Hittites, if i recall correctly, had figured out that it you sent a diseased donkey into an enemy’s city, the contagion would do the gruesome work for you, killing of people and well, the donkey was dead anyway. There was no Internet to spread the idea, but it was quite literally viral. Ancient manuscripts can teach us quite a lot, if we can take our eyes from the more questionable bits long enough to read the rest.

Not Knowing

WhatIDontKnowAboutAnimalsBegin with a basic premise: we cannot know what a creature without language thinks. Add in the thoughtful anxieties of a post-domestic writer who knows about animals and you have What I Don’t Know About Animals, by Jenny Diski. Part biography, part science, part philosophy, wholly human. I knew from the day the book was released that I would read it since, like the author, I am one haunted by the relationship between the exploited and the exploiter. Diski’s confessions are difficult to read at times, veiling herself, as she does behind the curtains of one’s most private experiences, but she reveals plenty to those who read on. We can’t know for certain what another person thinks, so how can we know what a sentient animal thinks? Some, following Descartes and Skinner, would declare that animals don’t think, they simply do as programmed. The rest of us know that they are wrong. The evidence accumulates more each year that animals think and feel, but, as Diski repeatedly points out, we need to drive with the brakes on. We can’t get inside them to actually know if human experience corresponds at all with animal experience. We’ve shared the planet for millions of years, but we’ve lost track of our common origins.

As I suspected, the Bible came into the discussion. The book of Genesis lurks in the background of most human-animal rationalizations. The divine division into separate “kinds” must be kept discrete at all times. The problem is, nature won’t always play along with that game. One type slowly morphs into another and some biologists are even questioning the usefulness of “species” at all. Fear of bestiality, as Diski points out, is found already in the Bible. Best to keep everything in its proper pigeon-hole, whether that’s where it belongs or not. Genesis gives us the right to exploit, and so we continue to use animals for our own purposes. Although the feline, it turns out, may have figured out how to set this order on its head. In some cases.

What I Don’t Know About Animals is not a defense of vegetarianism or of radical, thoughtless abandon. Diski writing on spiders will cause many heads to nod in agreement, and her rage against the loss of the common lady-bug struck an amazingly responsive chord with this reader. The lady-bug’s demise came at human tampering, importing asian beetles as pest control—beetles that eventually edged out the harmless lady-bug, replacing the Volkswagen of beetles with a biting, omnivorous, massing pest. In Wisconsin the southern side of our faculty house was literally blanketed with them in the spring. Diski uses the same word I did then: biblical. Swarms seem to be the way that the Almighty has of telling us too much of even a good thing will go bad. Although I couldn’t agree with every statement Diski makes, I have the feeling this is a book I will reread more than once. Wisdom often comes in the form of admitting just how little we know.

Schrödinger’s Luggage

I recently had the misfortune of flying on Delta Airlines. In all honesty I suppose my antipathy to Delta began with a flight on which I was not actually a passenger. A few years ago a news story of a Delta flight navigating to the wrong city created smirks for those who can afford to fly airlines that have better track-finding skills. With all of my flying over the past years, I’ve ended up on Delta a couple of times and my sense of their muddled thinking has only been confirmed. On a recent flight before which we were informed that our boarding would be “expediated” since the captain was late landing his jet at the next gate and would be flying right back to Atlanta whence he’d just arrived, I hoped the navigation would be better than the grammar. Landing in Atlanta for a flight to the thriving metropolis of Allentown, Pennsylvania, the gate agent repeatedly told us that the flight to “Aberdeen” was about ready to board. Several customers had to call out “Allentown” a few times before the agent realized her mistake. My misgivings grew. When I landed in Allentown, my checked bag had decided to take a tour of Detroit. It was late at night and I might have been a bit brusk with the poor, graveyard-shift Delta agent, but he assured me that my bag would be in by noon the next day.

Not a particularly trusting soul any more, I called Delta baggage information the next morning after looking at their website. The website showed the bag sitting just 15 gates from my departing Atlanta flight but then taking off to Detroit. When I called the representative told me that no information was available on my baggage (the artistry of understatement!). I informed her that I had the website up and that it showed my luggage in Detroit, I wanted to know when it would be in Allentown. Her tune changed to indicate, “oh yes, it is in Detroit.” But then, she could neither confirm nor deny that it would be on its scheduled flight. I had already determined to drive back to the airport to collect it. If Delta cannot be trusted to navigate to the right location in the air, then what would be their chances be on the ground in New Jersey? As I kindly suggested to the representative that they hire employees who could read, I couldn’t help but think of Schrödinger’s cat.

Erwin Schrödinger was the physicist who came up with the thought experiment of a cat placed in a box with a deadly substance. Whether the cat is alive or dead is only a matter of speculation without looking in the box, so, in reality, the cat is both alive and dead simultaneously. I’m no physicist, but I thought of Schrödinger’s luggage being both in the cargo hold and not being in the cargo hold at the same time. This was the very mystery of the universe, courtesy of Delta’s ineptitude, being foisted upon my frantic brain. Where was my bag? It was not in my possession, and I had last entrusted it to an airline that thought the best route from the Midwest to Allentown was through Atlanta and then Detroit, but they weren’t really sure if that was the case either. There is a consolation, however. You can get a refund of your twenty-five dollar baggage misplacement fee, in the form of a voucher for your next lost luggage episode on Delta airlines. I’m about ready to crawl into that box with Schrödinger’s kitten and await my fate.

Both here and not here.

Both here and not here.

Neither Black nor White

What hath Rome to do with Lagos? In the portion of the newspaper where religion is freely discussed—the Sunday edition, of course—Jeff Kunerth published a thoughtful piece entitled “Black atheists might feel lonely, but they’re not alone.” Kunerth reveals a double dilemma for the African-American non-believer: strong emic social pressure to be religious and etic deconstruction of race by many atheists. I know African-American humanists, and I have been informed of the lack of attention given to humanism and race. Both, in many circles, are troubling concepts. We like to think we’d evolved to the point of “race” disappearing from the social spectrum, but we also feel pride concerning cultural achievements, some of which are tied to “race.” Where would our culture be without the influence of African-American music, story, and art? Is belief required to truly belong?

I often wonder why it is that skin tone is used to divide people. Inevitably my thought goes back to the Bible. In the ancient view reflected in the book of Genesis, all creatures, humanity included, were created with inviolable boundaries of “kind.” As mules and ligers demonstrate, however, boundaries are often only as strict as we permit them to be. “Can the Ethiopian change his skin?” Jeremiah rhetorically asks in 13.23 of his eponymous book, “or the leopard his spots?” Not only is race fixed, but gender as well. Each according to his own kind. It’s this easy division that’s troubling me. Humans of all “races” may interbreed, something not possible for the liger or mule. We are free to change our outlook. The leopard spots are in our minds.

None of this is meant to belittle the difficulties faced by black atheists, or any others who are excluded by their own “kind.” It is simply a suggestion that we might enlarge the pie, to borrow from Getting to Yes, before dividing it. Belief has to be a matter of conscience, and acceptance should be a matter of principle. Too often religious beliefs divide rather than unite. Atheists and true believers, of one “race” or many, have a common cause to make a better world for all. The prophet anticipates a negative answer to his rhetorical question. Allow me, Jeremiah, respectfully to disagree. Yes, a leopard may change its spots anywhere except in the prejudiced savannah of the human mind.

Leopard_africa

Nine Lives

A warm and wet holiday weekend is a good time to watch movies. Since my daily work schedule leave scant time to view anything from most Monday-to-Fridays (and it would claim even more if I’d let it), relaxing often involves watching. I first saw Cats as an ambitious stage production for a local outdoor theater some years ago. Andrew Lloyd Webber has acute talent when it comes to mixing show tunes and popular music; so much so that even a vague storyline will do to carry a show. Cats, of course, is based on a set of children’s poems by T. S. Eliot—Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats. There is no narrative, and they show’s emotionally charged hit “Memory” had to be culled from among Eliot’s other poems. Nevertheless, the musical, now long off-Broadway, exists in a film version that is heavily endowed with religious themes. This weekend I watched it for the n-th time, and each viewing brings out new nuances.

The “story,” such as it is, has two very basic events: Jellicle Cats choose who can be reborn on the night of the Jellicle Ball, and Old Deuteronomy, the patriarch of Jellicles, is kidnapped (cat-napped?) and must be recovered before the choice can be made. The vignettes feature cats dealing with loss, love, and crime. The character who resonates with many viewers is Grizabella, the glamour cat. She is the has-been who sings “Memory,” the cat who was somebody before her fame and fortune faded to a tawdry existence among questionable society. The musical is about transformation, however. Transformation is a religious theme, the desire we have to be something more than we are, to transcend the hand life has dealt us. Now, I’m no theater or film critic, but I have to wonder whether the obvious fades and duets of “Memory” point to Grizabella as the older but sadder version of the young and lively Jemima.

Certainly as the finale builds, Grizabella is chosen to be reborn and is sent to the Heaviside Layer, but the camera keeps coming back to Jemima. She is often framed in the center and the suggestion is made that the new life has already begun. Religion thrives on transformation. I suppose that is the reason I find it so ironic that in politics religion, Christianity in particular, is championed as the pillar of the status quo. Whether they are new or old, religions serve no purpose if they do not challenge the “business as usual” model of the secular world. Perhaps that’s why successful artists such as Andrew Lloyd Webber thrive—they can pack theaters of seekers weekend after weekend, even for decades sometimes. Even those of us watching on the television at home click the eject button with a sense of hope that seems possible only on a holiday weekend.

A stray Jellicle cat?

Used Against You

Many times I’ve confessed to being a reluctant Luddite. My reluctance arises from a deep ambivalence about technology—not that I don’t like it, but rather that I’m afraid of its all-encompassing nature. This week’s Time magazine ran a story on how smartphones are changing the world. My job, meeting the goals set for me, would be impossible without the instant communication offered by the Internet. Everything is so much faster. Except my processing speed. We all know the joke (which would be funny if it weren’t so true) that if you’re having trouble with technology, ask a child. In my travels I see kids barely old enough to walk toddling around with iPhones, clumsily bumping into things (i.e., human beings) as they stare at the electronic world in the palm of their tiny hands. And once the technocrats have taken over, “progress” is non-negotiable.

I made it through my Master’s degree without ever seriously using a computer. Even now I think of this very expensive lap-warmer before me as a glorified word processor. Over the weekend I succumbed to the constant lure of Mac’s new OS, Mountain Lion. Some features of this blog had stopped working, and, being a Luddite, I assumed that it was outdated software. Of course, to update software, you need an operating system that can handle it. So here I am riding on a mountain lion’s back, forgetting to duck as the beast leaps dramatically into its lair. In this dark cave, nursing my aching head, I realize that I have become a slave to technology. For a student of religion who grew up without computers, I’ve got at least half-a-dozen obsolete ones in my apartment, each with bits and fragments I’m afraid to lose, despite the fact that I’m not even sure where to take them to retrieve the data. When I sat down to write my post this morning I received a message that Microsoft Word is no longer supported by Mountain Lion. Fortunately my daughter had the foresight to purchase Pages, so life goes on.

This blog has an index. It is an archaism. Indexes are not necessary with complete searchability. It is there mostly for me. In my feeble attempts at cleverness, I sometimes forget what a post is about, based on its title. The index helps me. In a truly Stephen King moment, I found this morning that my index had infinitely replicated a link to my post on the movie Carrie, so that any link after that will lead you directly to the protagonist of Stephen King’s first novel. It will take a few days to clean that up. There’s probably an app for it. For those of us brought up before household computers were a reality, however, there is a more religious explanation. Yes, my laptop is clearly haunted. And in the spirit of Stephen King I type these words while awaiting the top to snap down with the force of an alligator byte and break off my fingers. I should be worried about it, but instead, I’m sure there’s an app to take the place of missing digits. Even if there isn’t I’m sure my iPhone will happily survive without the constant interference of a Luddite just trying to call home.

Not a lap-pet.

A Tiger’s Tale

When my wife finished Yann Martel’s Life of Pi she said, “You’ve got to read this book!” Philosophical novels don’t often capture the interest of publishers or agents, but when they manage to slip through the fine-mesh mail-armor of the guild, they sometimes become best-sellers. Publishers often underestimate the intelligence and the hunger of the average reader. I was glad to have something so provocative to read on my long daily commute. Since the book was published in 2001 I won’t worry too much about spoiler alerts. It should come as no surprise that the biblical flood theme comes through a book where a zookeeper’s son is stranded on a lifeboat with various forms of wildlife. The most unexpected and endearing member of this menagerie, the tiger Richard Parker, is also the most deadly. How easy it would be to spin off in a Melvillesque direction of the beast as a representation of an uncomfortable God! Indeed, when Richard Parker scampers away when the boat runs aground, Pi laments how it was like losing God.

Setting the stage for this development is the tale of three religions. As a boy raised in India Piscine (Pi) is surrounded by traditional Hindu culture. On a family vacation he notices that atop the three hills are three houses of worship: Hindu, Christian, and Muslim. Curiosity draws the young boy in, and by the end of part one he is happily and concurrently Muslim, Hindu, and Christian, to the deep chagrin of the various religious leaders. They, coincidentally, all meet Pi with his parents one day in the park and each insists that although they encourage the boy’s continued membership in their tradition, he must drop the other two. Like any sensible person, Pi has chosen the safe road when it comes to conflicting religions: accept them all. It is only religion itself that deconstructs his triune belief system.

After his eventual rescue, Pi is questioned by insurance agents concerning the fate of the ship. They cannot believe his incredible tale, because they can only believe what they have seen for themselves. Pi asks, “What do you do when you’re in the dark?” An appropriate question for us all. This story is a parable about perceiving more than what can be seen. Tigers are hidden all around. Sometimes we call them Hobbes. Sometimes Richard Parker. They are protectors and they are dangerous. Some people call them God. In the end our protagonist is left without the divine presence that had kept him alive all the way across the Pacific Ocean. When the book is over, I think we would all admit, it is the tiger that we miss most of all.

Dreadful Dander

When it first appeared, mash-up literature seemed strangely novel for such a derivative art form. I read Pride and Prejudice and Zombies with some amusement, but a nagging suspicion kept asking if I was being fair to the genius of Jane Austin. At the same time, I like zombies. A lot. I decided to give the genre another try with Coleridge Cook’s mash-up of Franz Kafka’s classic, The Metamorphosis. During a long, late-evening flight from Los Angeles to New York, I finished The Meowmorphosis with a sense of dread. Instead of seeming funny, the idea of trying to make light of Kafka’s profundity felt like a devaluation to the classics of existentialist writers. Nobody writes like Kafka, Camus, and Durrenmatt any more. These are writers who welcomed me to an adulthood that seldom makes sense, but which is often generous with pain and angst.

The story of The Metamorphosis is well known. In the Meowmorphosis, obviously, Gregor Samsa is transformed into a kitten and is thrown into the same dilemma. The book takes a detour into Kafka’s The Trial along the way, and my memory of The Castle is rusty enough that I may have missed if it was referenced as well. Kafka’s work passes over from the entertaining to the profound. Perhaps that is the mark of classic writers—they seldom make a career of their literary efforts, for most people who read do so for entertainment. The Metamorphosis is not easy going. Perhaps that’s why I reacted so viscerally to Kafka’s truly horrendous bug being presented as a fluffy kitten. The idea is funny, but Kafka seldom smiles.

My reaction shed some light on the concept of sacred writing. Historically, the first book to receive that accolade seems to have been the Bible. Specifically, the Torah. There are sacred writings older, I know, but the reception is what makes a book sacred, not its words. Anyone who has read the Bible knows that it is a mixed bag of profundity, tedious lists, and literary beauty. Even Fundamentalists seldom quote 1 Chronicles 1-9 with the same ardor as Genesis 1-11. It is our reception of texts that make them sacred. Perhaps Christianity was premature with its insistence on closing the canon. Some of the best literature, the most inspirational words ever to be penned, lay centuries in the future. Our world would likely be a better place if sacred texts continued to keep their borders open and would admit texts that had passed the test of time. In any honest Bible including the twentieth century, The Metamorphosis would find a place. What a world it could be.

Master Cat

Okay, so I’ll confess having gone to see Puss in Boots yesterday. The movie had been getting good reviews and I’ll admit to really liking the first Shrek movie. The second Shrek movie, with Puss’s debut, was not bad. After that something changed. Anyway, it looks to be an intense week ahead, and I needed a little mindless release. Often on this blog, I mention horror movies and how fear ties into the concept of religion. Since working at Routledge—a publisher noted for its many books on religion and film—I’ve taken a renewed interest in finding the religious imagery in many different genres of movies. This is something I regularly undertook as a religion major in college and beyond, but it is an area of renewed interest in my mature years. So it was off to the theater.

One aspect of Puss in Boots, however, proved a distraction to me. The character of Humpty Dumpty scrambled in my mind with the same off-color image of the egg man in Jasper Fforde’s The Big Over Easy, a book I read this summer and blogged about earlier. In both stories, the egg was not what he seemed to be. A foodstuff with a decidedly darker side. In both stories, however, Humpty Dumpty was somehow vindicated, more a victim than a perpetrator of crime. It is not always easy to be a good egg. In Puss in Boots, however, this is where the religious imagery came in. The fractured fairytale storyline has Puss and Humpty (and Kitty Softpaws) growing a giant beanstalk and stealing the golden goose’s gosling. This is part of a twisted effort at revenge by Humpty; a kind of egg’s Benedict Arnold moment. Well, this is a children’s movie, so nobody is really bad. Humpty repents and sacrifices his own life to save the town. When he falls to his death, a golden egg is revealed inside. Mother Goose flies the golden Humpty up to the castle in the sky, disappearing in a blaze of heavenly sunlight. Life after death, the eternal reward. Heaven, Hollywood style.

Movies often serve as a source for and reflection of social values. Thus watchdog groups keep a close eye on what the silver screen reveals. Puss in Boots passes the test on highlighting the redemption theme. Although he is still a wanted criminal by the end, Puss (as well as Humpty) achieves redemption by making good on all the wrongs he committed against society. Almost sermonizing at points, the movie is another example of how mainstream media ends up on the side of traditional values. A deeper truth, however, may lurk beneath the celluloid. The true hero here is the Spanish Puss rather than the Angelo Humpty (and decidedly red-necked Jack and Jill). The religion it underwrites is, naturally, the civil religion expected by American audiences. Just maybe there is an awareness of social justice here as well.

The original

Natural Born Killers

Every year I spend some time at the local 4-H fair. I grew up not knowing about 4-H, and the discovery of the organization as an adult has been an education for me. The local university extension that supports 4-H is Rutgers, although on campus you never hear about this rural aspect of the sophisticated world of academia. My daughter has been a member of the cat club for years, and although not a member myself, they are cordial and always offer me a chair (something no university has ever done) to spend a few hours in the shade while the kids showcase their skills and knowledge. Young potential is one of the few sources of optimism I find in a culture obsessed with selfish gain. My daughter’s cat club shares a tent with the alpacas, the epitome of herbivorous tranquility. With wool so soft as to be unbelievable, the alpacas with their long, graceful necks and huge brown eyes, look to be the least offensive creatures at the fair (except maybe the bunnies).

People in crowds, however, often shift dynamics and stress systems that would otherwise find their own balance. While many of the thousands of visitors at the 4-H fair are respectful of the animals, many others seem unaware that loud voices and running children and constant noise can stress even docile animals kept in small enclosures. Kids will find a cat in its cage and bark at it to get a reaction, and we all know the glass-tapping behavior that drives the reptiles wild. The fair has been part of my life for three years now and I’ve never noticed a stressed alpaca. They seem above it all. Yesterday, however, one stressed animal took on a surprisingly human behavior and began to bully a smaller alpaca in its pen. Apart from the caricatured spitting, the larger animal began licking and biting the smaller one, snaking its long neck after the smaller camelid’s head, biting its ears, and generally making its life miserable. The aggression lasted only a few minutes, but it felt to me like the tension of seeing bullies rough up a kid on the playground. The fairgoers felt uncomfortable, with some even wagging their fingers at the larger, aggressive animal.

Club members eventually stepped in to separate the fighting alpacas, and the poor, smaller animal kept trembling for several minutes after the attack. No blood was let; the assault was mostly psychological. I went out to get a snack at the food tent. When I returned I was relieved to see the smaller animal had been removed from the pen, given some space. Later I learned the young animal had died from the stress of the attack. I had seen the incident, and the violence had mostly been of an unrelenting display of dominance with a minimal physical attack. The aura of threat had created the stress. Saddened, I realized that a parable had unfolded before my naïve eyes that afternoon. Like all parables, only those with perceptive eyes may be able to see through the drama and get to the heart of the matter. If only people were as perceptive as even the innocent herbivores, perhaps such parables could finally come to an end. In the meantime, maybe I’ll watch the bunnies and forget what I read in Watership Down.

Just look the other way...

Conscious Cats

To pass yet another rainy Saturday, and to celebrate Earth Day, my family went to watch Disney’s African Cats yesterday. An avowed nature-film junkie as a child, I watched Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom on a weekly basis and have supplemented that fare with nature films throughout my life, when possible. It disheartened me a little to learn that some of the adventures were spliced together from different filmings, but I always believed every word avuncular Marlin Perkins said. After all, the show ran on Sunday nights, and who’d dare lie on a Sunday? Noting the humor even as a child when Marlin Perkins would stand back as Jim Fowler wrestled the anaconda or outran the crocodile, I could not get enough of authentic nature footage. As a child, wildlife sightings were limited to squirrels and rabbits, a number of birds that looked disconcertingly similar, and many, many bugs. Once a king snake slithered down an alley down the street, and we felt like Marlin Perkins, keeping our safe distance.

A trend in recent years has been to anthropomorphize animal films to engage children’s interests. So it was with African Cats. Each lion and cheetah family was described in human terms with human motivations, longings, and emotions. It is clear from watching many, many episodes of Zoboomafoo with my daughter (we even saw the Kratt Brothers live at a New Jersey Greenfest a couple years back) that animals genuinely do experience emotions. Anthropomorphizing them, however, has always disturbed me. I’ve been a vegetarian for well over a decade now, believing that animals have the same right not to be eaten that I fervently hope they respect in me. But placing them in the same level of consciousness as humans increases the suffering in our world a little too much. Both lions and cheetahs die in this G-rated movie. That is the unfeeling course of nature. Suffering comes at the level among humans of being aware of this misfortune, and taking it to heart. Theodicy is among the most intractable of theological problems.

Today as millions of Christians celebrate resurrection, my thoughts are with the animals. African Cats shows incredible footage of millions of wildebeest migrating, but packages them as mere prey for the hungry lions. What of the inner life of the wildebeest? In our society where the few lions demand the best while countless prey animals go about their daily grind, eking out a living from an unfeeling earth, the subtle message was almost overwhelming. Yes, the vast wildebeest herd can spare a member or two to predation. What if that member is you or me? It is the trick of numbers and the curse of consciousness. I respect and admire our animal co-inhabitants of our planet, but without the myth of resurrection isn’t giving them consciousness just a little bit too cruel?

James Temple's cheetah from Flickr, via WikiCommons

Kings and Lions

Most parents come to know the Disney Empire intimately. Apart from cheap knock-offs, it is the main entertainment industry for children in a world of leisure. When weighed in the scales of intellectual achievement, Disney productions often end up in the lighter pan. Even some of the more serious stories, such as The Lion King, strive for a gravitas that eludes them. That doesn’t mean they can’t be fun to watch, however. Yesterday, in a celebration of two closely spaced birthdays, we went to see The Lion King on Broadway. Being in Times Square reminded me that New York City is where many adults go to play, the Disneyland for grown-ups. Even with the rain for which this April has been an overachiever, hundreds of tourists were about, flocking to the famous chapels of the temple to American consumerism.

Having sat through many decent productions of high school, college, and touring company musicals and plays, I never really appreciated how a long-term professional show could raise the standards to a nearly unattainable level. The Lion King story-line has many mythological – Christian, even – themes, but the immediate sense of awe in being in a Broadway theater was underscored mostly by the professionalism of the actors and singers. The play does try to raise the level of awareness of African culture, a heritage nearly wiped out in many locations by overzealous missionaries, albeit in Disney-approved fashion. It is very easy to comprehend why those who frequent Broadway find other productions lacking. In short, the show was spectacular.

As today is the official start of Holy Week, and as Easter is about self-sacrifice and rebirth, The Lion King was an appropriate choice to experience (it was selected by my daughter). The death of Mufasa in the salvation of Simba is played out in a resurrection of sorts when Simba realizes that his father still lives in him. The character of Rafiki also makes for an excellent example of a shaman. Glancing through the playbill, it was evident that many Broadway shows are keyed to religious culture: Jerusalem, Sister Act, Rock of Ages, The Book of Mormon, and even Mary Poppins has a magical being descending from the skies to set a minor injustice to right. Now as millions lift their palms on this Sunday the drama will carry on and art will continue to draw its inspiration from religion.

Broadway 1986

Cat Tales

Several years ago a cat named Rusty, aka, Firestar, came into our lives. Since my wife is allergic to cats Firestar is, of course, a fictional character. I’ve written about the Warrior series of tween books by Erin Hunter before, and last night I was reminded of the centrality of religion to the story. My daughter has been a fan of Warriors since fourth grade. One of the few luxuries we allow ourselves is the (now mandatory) purchase of the newest installment on the very day of its release. Waiting even one day cannot be tolerated. Although my daughter is among the more wizened readers of the series, her devotion is undying. She’s the kind of fan publishers (and some deities) covet. Last night I took a break from grading student papers to take her to see Erin Hunter at the kick-off book signing for the latest release in the series.

What a publisher loves to see

I have to admit feeling a bit out of my league waiting in a massive line where the average age is, on the whole, several decades below mine. There was even some question as to whether we would even be admitted since we had the dreaded B tickets rather than the highly prized A stubs. Having read the first twelve books as bedtime stories quite a few years back, I hadn’t expected the founder of the quaternity of Erin Hunters to be quite so witty. As she explained (mostly to the adults present, I believe) her interest in devising the series, she cited “religion” as the second of her interests. In the series, tribes of feral cats each have a shamanistic “medicine cat,” and the spirits of the departed cats play an influential role. Ms. Hunter also explained that the clans could be taken to represent different religions, all struggling to coexist.

Now I could understand that I was clearly in the world of fantasy. Religions, like all human institutions, are prone to corruption. Lofty ideals, inspiringly presented by insightful founders, soon come to be used as weapons and tools to win control over other people. Since religion is understood to be sacred, few suspect the insidious uses to which the various tenets of belief-systems may be put. Those of us who have toiled long among the religiosphere must become more circumspect about our surroundings or be consumed by them. Many of us know firsthand what darkness religions are capable of generating. In fact, it is something that even cats recognize, if Warriors be a reasonably reliable guide through this tangled forest. And like cats, many religious warriors can barely keep their claws sheathed.

Dream Quest

H. P. Lovecraft was a writer who remained unappreciated during his life but who has become a very influential literary figure after his death. So it is with artists. Known mostly for his short stories, one of the novellas he wrote, “The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath,” carries immense religious implications. Those familiar with Lovecraft’s fictional world know of the god Cthulhu and the “Other Gods” that he places in outer space. In “Dream-Quest” Lovecraft states that these Other Gods, “are good gods to shun.” While mere fiction, the concept of divinity has become pliable in the hands of its human author. Mortals are those who describe gods, those who decide what their deities will be like. The dream of the titular quest involves the earth gods having been removed from their shining city to leave the dark and dangerous other gods in charge.

While some would dismiss Lovecraft as overly inventive, his view of the earth being clouded by the crawling chaos Nyarlathotep strangely matches what we see playing out in the headlines. Those who are supposed to protect the masses, their leaders – elected or otherwise – have shown themselves to be interested in personal gain above all sense of duty. Throughout the world, and increasingly clearly in the United States, the working poor are seen as simple commodities easily manipulated and programmed to support those who would exploit them. Crawling chaos has landed.

Lovecraft’s “Dream-Quest” has a host of unlikely heroes, among them the cats of Ulthar. These cats maintain a true divinity appropriate for the descendents of Bastet. Feline divinity represents hope to Randolph Carter, Lovecraft’s protagonist. They also represent the tendency of the earth gods only to appear when most sorely needed, otherwise simply to set their own agenda. Where are the cats of Ulthar now? The problem with gods is they don’t always show up when you need them. Many dismiss Lovecraft as just another overly imaginative writer of cheap fiction, but to those will to listen carefully he was an author that could hear a very faint pulse. Even if that pulse was coming from under the floorboards to haunt a reality where the earth gods had gone away.

A little writer shall lead them

Myth of Jerusalem

As I stood atop the Mount of Olives watching the sun set over Jerusalem several years ago, I had difficulty believing I was actually there. For a working class kid who’d only ever been to Canada before (and only because we lived not too far from Niagara Falls), this was a moment like a scene from the Bible itself. Jerusalem is a city of myth and dream, and it represents just how seriously mythology may be taken. A new book, Jerusalem, Jerusalem: How the Ancient City Ignited Our Modern World, by James Carroll, was reviewed in Sunday’s newspaper. I have not yet read the book myself, but a couple of lines from Tom Mackin’s review leapt out at me: “Jerusalem is as much a symbol as a reality. Because most Orthodox males spend their time studying the Torah, they are unemployed. Piety brings poverty.” This is editorializing with parsimony.

Those of us raised to believe that pursuit of the highest calling of humankind is that of seeking the divine often end up forced to live the consequences. This pursuit does not pay, unless one is willing to sell one’s soul to become a televangelist. Unemployment has a way of sharpening one’s focus. The message repeatedly heaped upon you by society is that you have nothing of value to contribute. True, religious founders often declare the ineffectual satisfaction of lucre, but then, most of them didn’t have a child to put through college. Having spent nine years after high school studying the Torah (and Prophets and Writings and documents written long before any of this), I see now what could not be seen then.

When I watched the sun set over Jerusalem with some friends, a stray cat wandered over, looking for affection. Or, more likely, food. I had some scraps that I shared with the hungry kitten when it unexpectedly bit my finger and scampered away. My friends, concerned for rabies or some other infection, rushed me down the Mount of Olives and into the Holy City seeking a holy pharmacy. Little did I know at the time that a myth was being enacted at the expense of my aching finger. Acts of kindness are rewarded with the hand that feeds being bitten. I had to come down from the mountain, earn a doctorate, and be dismissed by well-groomed evangelicals before I could finally see that the symbol was the same as reality. I need to read this book to restore my faith in mythology.

More and less than it seems