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.
Posted in Posts, Religious Violence, Bible, Animals, Cats, Higher Education, Popular Culture
Tagged Chronicle of Higher Education, Samson, Philistines, Judges, Associated Press, rocket cats, Franz Helm, Steve Kolowich, Hittites
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.
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?
Posted in Books, Cats, Holidays, Literature, Movies, Popular Culture
Tagged Andrew Lloyd Webber, Cats, Grizabella, Jellicle, Jellicle Cats, Jemima, memory, Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats, T. S. Eliot
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.
Posted in Animals, Cats, Just for Fun, Movies, Posts, Science
Tagged Carrie, iPhone, Mountain Lion, Stephen King, technology, Time
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.
Posted in Animals, Books, Cats, Popular Culture, Posts, Sects
Tagged Christian, Hindu, Life of Pi, Muslim, Noah's Flood, Richard Parker, tigers, Yann Martel
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
Posted in Animals, Cats, Consciousness, Holidays, Movies, Popular Culture, Posts
Tagged African Cats, Disney, Earth Day, Jim Fowler, Kratt Brothers, Marlin Perkins, Mutual of Omaha Wild Kingdom, theodicy, wildebeest, Zoboomafoo
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.
Posted in Cats, Just for Fun, Memoirs, Movies, Popular Culture, Posts
Tagged African culture, Broadway, Disney, Holy Week, Lion King, New York City, Palm Sunday, shaman, Times Square
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.