Category Archives: Just for Fun

Posts that are not intended to be taken too seriously

Pierogdolia

One of the memorable scenes from Men in Black is when the Arquillian takes Gentle Rosenburg to a restaurant for pierogi. One need not be an alien, or even Polish, to appreciate these dumplings, and a few weeks ago I found myself at a restaurant that offered pierogi on the menu, and I had to bring the leftovers home. When I was reheating them the next day an epiphany of sorts transpired. Now, when I prepare pierogi, I use the more healthy boiling method. The restaurant, however, fried them, leaving characteristic browning. As I flipped the reheating dumplings, a case of pareidolia occurred (prompting the title to this piece by both my wife and daughter, on separate occasions). A discussion of whose face this was ensued. Charles Darwin, Karl Marx, Abraham Lincoln, and Charles Dickens were all suggested, but those attuned to religious thinking know that when a face appears, it must be that of Jesus. Well, a man’s face with a beard, in any case. If it’s female, it must be Mary.

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Pareidolia was always a winner with students, in my teaching days. Our brains are so attuned to finding faces that we actually design them into houses and cars and appliances. We like to see a friendly face. Now in my brain I know this is just fried dough, but my eyes are telling me this is a face on my dinner plate. The tendency is so closely tied to religious sensibilities that we can safely rule out any number of candidates. Of course, if I were to see this same phenomenon in a different culture, my referent would likely be completely different. Still, we seldom see news stories of Buddhists, say, finding Siddhartha Gautama’s image in foodstuffs. (Although, in all honesty I once found a water stain on a saucepan that looked very much like I imagine Confucius appearing.) Is there a deep-set need in our religious culture to find assurance in unlikely places? Are we that insecure?

Apart from the perennial favorites of breads (toast, tortillas, and now pierogi), images of “Jesus” show up in garden shrubs, water stains under highways, clouds, and even stingrays, prompting, a few years back, a website entitled “Stuff that Looks Like Jesus.” Now, I seriously doubt that some kind of transubstantiation has taken place on my dinner plate, but the appearance of a face on my food is always cause for reflection. Food is so essential to animal survival that it is perhaps strange that such images don’t occur more often. It is perhaps ironic that we hear most about it from a leisure-based culture with a cult of food fetishes. I don’t know who showed up on my pierogi, but the evidence is now long gone so it will have to remain a matter of faith.

World Cup Runneth Over

I’m not a sports fan of any description. I guess the message, “it’s just a game” sank in rather well as a child. Nevertheless, I was curious when some friends invited us over to watch the World Cup finals. New York City has been abuzz over the last few weeks, and if my walk home takes me past a bar in the city, I almost always have to cross the street to get around the crowds standing outside. So, I’ve been a little intrigued. It perhaps helps that some considerable primordial Teutonic blood makes its home in my ancestry. Hey, but it’s only a game. As a sometime jogger, it was interesting watching these guys running themselves ragged for 120 minutes, but what makes the World Cup worthy of a blog on religion is the sheer amount of religious imagery that pervaded the Brazilian broadcast of the event. Several lingering shots on Christ the Redeemer backlit by a halo-like sun preempted footage of the game. When night fell, the shots show Jesus looking down to watch the game.

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The Argentineans, it would seem, should have had the spiritual advantage. With a pope in the Vatican, and a fan or two even dressed up like the Holy Father, the match taking place in some of the most Catholic territory outside of Rome, you might think some blessing would have been ambient. As the game ended Christ the Redeemer was lit up in rainbow colors and the Germans held the trophy high. Perhaps this is just grousing coming from a guy who’s lost as many times as I have, but it seemed that there could have been a bit more bonhomie on the part of those who managed to make their way to the final for what was, throughout, a very tight game. Perhaps they were just exhausted, but a smile for the camera might have gone a long way. They only lost by one.

During the match, as the director chose scenes of Christ the Redeemer, the announcers could be heard saying, “shouldn’t we be watching the game?” A profound, yet utterly human reversal of the usual evangelical trope of keeping one’s eyes on Jesus. But the millions around the world tuned in were not interested in Rio’s most famous landmark; rather, they wanted to see what was happening down on the ground, in real time. Heaven has its place, no doubt, but it should not interfere with matters of worldly importance. For many, some sociologists tell us, sports serves the function of religion. While extremely fit men run themselves to exhaustion, a kind of worship is taking place down on the field. Looking up to the icon on the hill, it is crucial to remember that it is just a game.

War in Heaven

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Van Helsing, about which I’ve posted before, is not a great film, but it is perhaps the closest that modern cinema has to offer for my childhood Saturday afternoon viewing. Vampires, werewolves, and Frankenstein’s monster all appear together in a ménage à trois that Universal would’ve been proud to own in the 1960s. With lines cribbed from some of the Universal originals, plus some less believable chatter from Steven Sommers, the campy film is unrelentingly in dialogue with religion and its monsters. Indeed, the plot revolves around the church’s plan to save humanity from monsters by the employment of the eponymous van Helsing. I’ve probably seen the movie half a dozen times, and I’m a bit embarrassed to admit the this is the first time I’ve stopped to wonder at why, unlike Bram Stoker’s van Helsing, the one in the movie is named “Gabriel.”

It should’ve been obvious at the first viewing, but this time I was watching the movie with the intention of parsing its theology. In medieval Roman Catholic angelology, there are seven archangels. Two of them (or three, depending on whose Bible you are reading) are named in Holy Writ. Gabriel is, of course, one of them. The movie also shifts Dracula from being son of a Wallachian nobleman to being the “son of the Devil” (clearly by adoption). The Devil’s gift of resurrection (with which the movie is rife) comes with the vampiristic curse. And the climax of the film has the leader of God’s army (“the left hand of God”), Gabriel, battling the son of Satan. This is none other than the war in Heaven of which the Bible speaks. The leader of the archangelic army is actually Michael, but having “Mike van Helsing” as your lead just doesn’t carry the gravitas of Gabriel.

The movie opens with Dracula claiming that science has triumphed over God, and yet the mythology of monsters prevails. Frankenstein’s creation is morally pure, being a loving child of science, and the church declares him anathema. Throughout the movie all the monsters claim to want is to live, to survive. In fact, they are already resurrected. The werewolves get the dog’s share of the theology, however. They are infected or cursed rather than reborn. The war in Heaven has come to earth as angels and demons battle for supremacy. In the end, it is the human family chosen by God that goes extinct. I’m not sure all the theology adds up at the end of the film, but again, that is the very nature of mythology. And a film that can bring back a careless Saturday afternoon really doesn’t need to make sense at all.

International Panic Day

Holidays have diverse origins. Some appear to have been made up in a fit of madness, bearing no particular relevance to anything. When I saw a publisher offering an “International Panic Day” sale, however, I supposed it was a joke. A quick web search indicated otherwise. June 18, for reasons nobody can really identify, is International Panic Day. I’m reminded of the Simpsons episode where Marge, liberated from her phobia of being mugged, runs past grandpa calling, “I’m not afraid!” to which he replies, “Then you’re not paying attention.” Fear and panic, while not the same thing, live in the same neighborhood. Many analysts point to fear as the primal emotion behind religion. We may never be able to prove that with any certainty, but I can’t think that panic has a religious origin. Many panics have emerged from religious fervor, but the panic itself seems not to have conceived religion.

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According to Holiday Insights (dot com, of course) no information can be found on the origins of the holiday, which makes it sound like a perfect internet invention. It is a day to feel unsettled. For some of us, that seems like most days. Again citing the wisdom of cartoons, Charlie Brown notes in the 1965 Christmas special, “I know nobody likes me. Why do we have to have a holiday season to emphasize it?” Holidays can be like that sometimes. But a panic day? I have an amateur theory that International Panic Day derives from Panic Day (about which Holiday Insights also has no information), which falls on March 9.

Some online sources have noted that the choice of June 18 is a strange one for International Panic Day because the next day is already (and has been since 1979) World Sauntering Day. This holiday is believed to have begun at the Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island in Michigan. Apparently W.T. Rabe, the holiday’s creator, was reacting to how popular jogging had become and wanted people to slow down for a day. International Panic Day would seem to suggest that running is the best option. Without a goal, of course, other than just to get away. Maybe there is a connection with religion after all. Having long been a fan of Douglas Adams, however, I am a devotee of his contra-mantra: don’t panic.

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Private Religion

Some things are best left private. I don’t know what possessed me to request a car maintenance visit first thing in the morning on a Saturday. I mean, the dealership is a 45-minute drive, and there are few places less inspiring than an automotive waiting room. The coffee is weak and tepid. Usually the television’s blaring some nonsense, and even before eight on a Saturday morning there are plenty of other people around. But there’s free wifi. Well, not exactly free when I get a glimpse at the bill. So I think perhaps I can write a blog post while I’m waiting. How do you write about religion with people watching? It’s the bashful bladder of the soul. Back in my Nashotah House days, when I was required to preach, I couldn’t write a sermon with wife or daughter in the room. I couldn’t practice it in front of family. For some things, you just need to be alone.

So, as I’m trying to write this innocuous little homily, someone pulls up next to me on the single table in the waiting room. It’s like standing at a row of exposed urinals. Trying not to be obvious, I turn my screen a little more in my direction, and less in his. Still, there are people sitting behind me and who says that the sense of being stared at is a myth? Although communal worship is often a public event, at least in a crowd of like-minded believers, the experience of the divine, however defined, is deeply personal. It seems that there’s only one soul per customer. We don’t know what a soul is, but it shouldn’t feel lonely, because we don’t know what consciousness is either. Still, trying to perform here is trickier than I’d imagined. I might just have to finish this at home.

photo-19 copyIt used to be a truism that two topics are not for public discussion: religion and politics. Such fightin’ words only lead to tears and wars. The magazine rack next to me is insipid with Sports Illustrated, Bowhunting, and AutoSuccess for the guys, Real Weddings, Good Housekeeping, and Martha Stewart Weddings for the ladies. The only book I brought has an overtly religious title. What was I thinking? Next time maybe I’ll bring Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. I climb into the newly serviced car to drive home. Are those docile bubble lights on the car behind me? I’m still being watched. All the way I never even touch 55, because driving is one of those situations where non posse non peccare truly does apply. When the cruiser finally turns off, I read New Jersey State Park Police on the side of the car. Some thoughts, like religion, are best left private.

St. Ghost

HauntedSouthernTierSince they combine two of my soft spots—local history and ghost stories—books telling the tales of home-town specters are compelling in a homespun way. On a visit to Binghamton, New York, I picked up Haunted Southern Tier by Elizabeth Tucker at the local bookstore (I have a hard time passing up an independent bookstore anywhere). Those of us at least a little familiar with upstate New York know that the southern tier is not strictly defined, but it is a recognizable section of the Empire State that runs just north of the Keystone. I was drawn to the book by Elizabeth Tucker’s name; she is the author of Haunted Halls, a book I reviewed earlier on this blog, about college campus ghosts. These local travel guides tend to focus on the weird and whimsical, and aren’t meant to be taken too seriously. Nevertheless, the connection between ghosts and religion is tangible in just about any part of the world, no matter what one believes.

This fun read brings a number of explicit religious points to the surface. One involves the strange phenomenon of haunted churches. Given that many varieties of Christianity offer Heaven as a reward immediately following death, having a ghost hanging around a church seems strangely disingenuous. Perhaps that’s why few churches admit to such things. Another interesting tie-in to religion comes in Tucker’s section on roadside ghosts. Stories of spectral hitchhikers are quite ancient, but I had never considered them biblical. Tucker mentions one such instance in the Book of Acts, and upon reflection I realized that she may be onto something. The account of Philip converting the Ethiopian eunuch is one of the odder tales of the early Christian movement. Philip explains Isaiah’s prophecies to the chariot-riding dignitary who gives him a lift, and baptizes the visiting Ethiopian before mysteriously disappearing. Could this be the prototype for the vanishing hitchhiker folklore theme?

Perhaps the most serious of the religious connections in the book, however, has to do with St. Bonaventure University. For those familiar with Thomas Merton’s life story, St. Bonaventure will not be unexpected. Merton taught at the school as he was struggling with his identity that led him to become one of the most renowned Trappist monks in the world—one who spoke approvingly of Buddhism, to boot. Merton is not said to haunt the university, but his presence there at one time has endowed this Catholic school with a sense of spiritual gravitas. The ghosts come from elsewhere.

Books on ghosts are a guilty pleasure with a serious undertone. End of life issues, once we move beyond the medical, are the unquestioned provenance of religion. Whether or not there are any ghosts out there, religion will claim the final word on afterlife. And only those who experience it will ever really know.

Inerrant, Indeed

The other day at work, I discovered a huge Bible. This one was truly massive, in three volumes, almost too heavy to lift. As I pulled down the last fascicle, which weighed more than a newborn, I noticed the sticker on the cover. “Author’s proof.” This gave me pause. Does God read his own material or does he hire out freelancers? Printed Bibles have a long and venerable history of typographical errors, especially in the early days. Speaking in the name of the Almighty does have its risks. After all, little is more persuasive in America than the words, “it’s in the Bible.” I remember kids saying that to me in high school, where I had the reputation of being a walking concordance. More often than not, I had to correct them, since, in fact, the Bible mentions nothing about Popes or guns.

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Prior to the electronics revolution, printing a Bible was a complex process. Typesetting, or compositing, was not an undertaking for the foolhardy. Type has to be set, cast, and molded in order for offset printers to roll. And although page proofs aren’t set in stone, metal isn’t a forgiving medium to manipulate. And let’s face it—the Bible has a lot of words. Some of them very dry. The King James Version has over 780,000 words. Those with any experience in publishing know that’s one big book. Bible proofreaders command a hefty fee. I would be afraid to correct the word of the Lord myself. Reading through holy writ, word-by-word, takes a bit of time. The mind wanders to monks in their scriptoria.

Nevertheless, printer’s errors abound. Growing up as an evangelical, lighthearted entertainment was to be had as we read about the “Breeches Bible,” the Geneva Bible that had Adam and Eve fabricating britches for themselves from fig leaves. Coverdale’s Bible was known as the “Bug Bible” for its translation of Psalm 91.5, “Thou shall not nede to be afrayed for eny bugges by night.” Various versions of the King James have typos including Judas telling the disciples to watch in Gethsemane while he goes yonder to pray, and the somewhat self-serving “Printer’s Bible” that renders Psalm 119.161, “Printers have persecuted me without a cause” (which may be true, but the Hebrew would seem to indicate “princes” instead). The most notorious was the “Wicked Bible” wherein the seventh commandment in Exodus reads, “Thou shalt commit adultery.” All but eleven copies were destroyed and one of the remaining sold in recent years for $89,000. A Bible printed during the First World War, had “Thou shalt kill” as a commandment, Freud be praised. I slip the author’s proof back onto the shelf. I’ll let this be somebody else’s problem.

In Our Own Backyard

That monk walking towards me looks a little suspicious. Perhaps it’s that guy with a top hat and weird gun strolling next to him with a waxed mustache and carefully sculpted beard. Like a page ripped from ComicCon, the Steampunk World’s Fair draws people from all across the east coast (perhaps even further afield) to Piscataway, New Jersey, or some venue near Rutgers, every spring. In a world where work routinely stifles creativity, a weekend of subculture is about as good as it gets. As a veteran of over two decades of Society of Biblical Literature meetings, I’m used to large conferences. Only this is much more fun. The Steampunk World’s Fair draws some 4,000 people, most of them baroquely costumed, to a sleepy corner of an overly developed industrial corridor, courtesy of Jeff Mach and Widdershins LLC. I met Jeff Mach at Steampunk City last October. A natural promoter, he has a way of getting events noticed.

Steampunk is more than a literary genre. It has become an eclectic mix of the technical and supernatural, the scientific and the absinthe-laced dreams of fantasy. An element of H. P. Lovecraft fandom is clearly present at the World’s Fair, as is an interest in Victorian spiritualism. Indeed, it would not be difficult to concoct a religion out of this heady brew. Like most human cultures, there is no pure form here. Vendors will be glad to accept your money, but true artists put great effort into unique pieces of creativity and style. I’m here, not feeling entirely safe surrounded by such strangeness, wondering if this isn’t a natural outgrowth of what happens when a technically oriented society too long denies its emotional subtext.

Role-playing is catharsis. Many of us spend our days feeling relatively powerless in a capitalistic system that is overwhelming and stifling. Thomas Piketty meanwhile suggests that extreme economic inequality leads to a breakdown of a system that favors too few. Although restraining himself from the economic implications, Frans de Waal notes the same phenomenon among primates that we insist on calling lower than ourselves. Bread and circuses, we know, only kept imperial Rome going for so long before it collapsed under the weight of inherited greed. Under great pressure, the people will play. This feels a bit heavy for the Steampunk World’s Fair, however. I can’t recall the last time I saw robots rubbing elbows with bearded, cross-dressing nuns, and nobody thought any of this was out of the ordinary. Or maybe it’s just the absinthe-flavored truffles talking. I know where I will be, in any case, come next May.

A typical sight.

A typical sight.

Not Child’s Play

Games reveal quite a bit about a culture. That’s a little takeaway from my undergraduate anthropology class. Different societies favor different types of games: chance, strategy, zero-sum, role-playing, the list could go on and on. Indeed, games have surpassed movies as the big money makers of the tech entertainment industry. We love to play.

Religions sometimes try to capitalize on popular culture. The difference is that religions are taken with a lethal seriousness that most games leave behind. Sure, you may end up shooting a few hundred people, but when you walk away from the flat screen you probably know that the game is over. Religions, of course, realize that they aren’t fun. Despite the constant criticism that religions get for being simplistic and superstitious, anyone who has tried to be a serious adherent knows that it isn’t as easy as it looks. Being religious is very hard work. So, why not turn to games to convey hard truths? The other day I found an old, still-in-the-box, shrink-wrapped game called Divinity. It is designed to teach the catechism of the Catholic Church. A Monopoly-like track edges a stained-glass center board, and, I suspect, you get considerably more than $200 for passing Go.

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Using games to sugar-coat bad tasting doctrine is nothing new. One might argue that the Sunday School tradition long ago capitalized on the idea of making avoiding perdition fun. In some cases it does seem to have worked; some kids grow up terrified and spend their lives trying hard to win the game. In fact, it can set some lives on a trajectory far too high to achieve, but far too important not to try. We can’t all be priests, after all. Should we all be clergy, then many interested parties would be out of a job.

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Once upon a time, the state religion could demand a sizable chunk of municipal funding. Taxes went to support the expensive luxury of clergy dedicated to pleasing the gods, Then the rules changed. With religious freedom there comes a great outpouring of creativity to ensure that the coffers never run dry. Christian comic books, Christian rock, Christian movies, Christian board games. We have come to an age of faith branding. It’s no surprise, really, for it is, according to the rules, a zero-sum game.

Paying Goliath

A friend pointed me to the story of David and Goliath. Well, actually, it was the Malcolm Gladwell story of David and Goliath. TED talks have become a regular part of public education and I was a little surprised to see one based on a Bible story. If you’d blink you’d miss it. I’d seen Gladwell’s new book on David and Goliath in the bookstore, and I had assumed it was about some hidden principle based on little boys challenging giants to single combat. Who knows. So when I turned on TED and heard Gladwell describing pretty much what I would do in class, and knowing that he was raking in the bucks for doing so, I gave it some thought. Yes, it is clear that he’s done some research into ancient warfare. Most of us who read the Hebrew Bible do, since ancient warfare is a large part of Holy Writ. (Yet the world seems surprised when religions turn violent.) Gladwell’s perspective is refreshing, but I can’t help think that the Bible does indeed view David as the underdog. Yes, slingers were always an important factor in warfare, just as archers were before guns were invented. I seriously doubt David was actually packing the firepower of a .45, however.

The interesting thing is that Gladwell takes the story so literally. Historically David’s existence is questionable, although I personally see the weight of tradition as bearing on the tipping point here. There were just too many stories of the boy who killed the giant in the Bible to say it was all made up. The fact that they don’t agree in details adds a hoary venerability to the tales. But can we take it to the level of seeing Goliath as having double vision because of his gigantism, and saying to David “why do you come at me with sticks” even though the lad is holding only one? Perhaps Goliath can be pardoned for using the plural instead of dual form (he is, after all, a Philistine), but the point here is that it is a taunt. David is what the dog saw, compared to the seriously shielded Goliath. Gladwell makes some good points, but, in my humble opinion, misses the giant.

Saul, the king of Israel, fears to send David into combat because the kid will be slaughtered and Israel will be enslaved. Yes, ancient armies relied on slingers, but, like archers, in great numbers. Perhaps it was David’s accuracy that was in doubt. According to the Bible, however, Israel boasted slingers who could hit a hair at distance, and these from the tribe of Benjamin, Saul’s own people. So the point of the story is that David’s victory is a miracle. Miracles no longer fly, of course. Those who write bestsellers know best. It stands to reason. Okay, so I’ll buy Gladwell’s book now, but I somehow feel that those of us who have spent a life studying the Bible really deserve something more that jobless obscurity. I come at the giant with a tiny blog, but then, I’ve alway been an underdog. An outlier, you might say.

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High School All Over

“Jungle calls around the corner!”  This shout was followed by hoots, grunts, and squeals as the bus turned, intended to madden the driver of infamous bus 18. My high school bus had a reputation for driving its drivers—driving them to drink, anyway.  Some of the more memorable replacements had unflattering nicknames hurled at them: Wedgehead and Illiterate Bob are two I remember well.  I arrived at school smelling of pot and slightly deaf from the shouting more than once. Then we got a driver who fought back. One day he expelled all the boys from the bus for the remainder of the week. Being a Bible-reading, church-going youth who sat quietly up front, I felt that I didn’t deserve this punitive measure. Still, I felt sorry for the drivers.  And I’d learned a valuable lesson—being responsible for the safe arrival of fifty people is a lot of pressure.

Yesterday I climbed aboard the adult NJ Transit bus 117. Only later did I ominously realize that if the first digit were added to the final digit, you would get bus 18.  Or was it really the Pequod?

Those of us who stumble aboard the bus before 6 am are a docile, sleepy crowd, for the most part.  I open my book, and if someone insists on talking, plug my buds into the white noise app on my phone.  This is how I get my reading done.  Some of the regulars like to argue with the drivers. “You’re too early,” one woman says (although she’s ironically on the bus at the time). Or “Why didn’t you stop for me? I had to chase the bus!” The latter was the complaint yesterday.

For being soporfiric, the early crowd is pretty tightly wound. Daily we spend about 4 hours commuting for 7 hours of work.  We catch the early bus because traffic going into Manhattan meets the dictionary definition of Hell. Well, the complainer chose a tightly wound driver to challenge yesterday.  The complainer wouldn’t let up. I could hear the yelling through my static-filled earbuds.  In a move that would’ve done Illiterate Bob proud, the driver slammed on the brakes right on the highway and pulled over.  He demanded the lady off the bus.  She wouldn’t leave. He got off the bus and called his supervisor for 30 minutes. At the dawn of rush hour. The passengers began to grumble, not least of which was the complainer.  Held hostage, we all knew we were going to be late for work. I put away my book.  I’d been here before. I knew what would come next. I braced myself.  “Jungle calls around the corner!”

In the belly of the whale.

In the belly of the whale.

Bread Line

“Her smoke rises up forever,” apart from describing the fall of Babylon the Great, can also describe our toaster. The thing has been with us for many years now and the lifespan of a toaster is often measured in months rather than decades. I suppose I could go to the store, but the internet is right here, so when I began searching for toasters I found, yes indeed, The Jesus Toaster. I’m sorely tempted. Of course, I haven’t had breakfast yet, but I wonder whether this device is diabolical or devotional. Often it is difficult to tell the difference. Pareidolia, the tendency to see human faces and forms where they don’t exist (false positives), seems to be an evolutionary device to get us to pay attention for possible dangers in our environment. Now that we live hermetically sealed lives, our minds still find faces, and often attribute religious significance to them. We’ve all read of cases of Jesus casting his divine face upon a humble piece of toast, or a tortilla. Or a bruised toe or a garden shrub—the holy visage is not just for breakfast any more. So some clever wag decided to engineer a toaster that puts Jesus right on your bread. A private sacramental, still, you might want to go lightly with the jam. But is Jesus toast used for good or evil? What is your houseguest is Hindu or Jewish? Will they awake to conversion or controversy?

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The association of Jesus with bread is deep and abiding. Seminary students everywhere learn that Bethlehem, the place where Jesus was born according to Matthew, means “house of bread” in Hebrew. We know that Jesus had a reputation for feeding vast crowds with a few loaves of bread. By the time we get to the Gospel of John he is lingering long over the matzah at the last supper after claiming that he is the bread. In many churches he is weekly served in pressed little wafers without much flavor, but, we are told, with infinite substance. Jesus and bread go together like, well, bread and butter.

So, should I buy the Jesus Toaster, as seen on TV, or just some regular box of hot coils to warm my mornings? I’m not sure there’s ever any going back once you’ve seen the other side. But wait, there’s more! You can buy a Poe toaster, or a Virgin Mary toaster. They may have a surfeit of meaning, but do they satisfy as toast? As I sit here the time for work draws inexorably closer, and I haven’t decided on my toast yet. Does the Jesus Toaster do bagels? Will my English muffin include Joseph of Arimathea? Does whole wheat toast suggest an African Jesus? My morning has suddenly become too full of options. Besides, the day is usually downhill from here. I think maybe I’ll just have cereal instead.

Raptor Attention

Comments on internet sites are quite revealing. Not that many comments ever make their jolly way to this blog, but, like many people I spend too much time on the internet, and you can’t help but read a few now and again. My wife sent me an ad for the Jesus-raptor tee-shirt offered by Six Dollar Shirts. The image has been floating around the web for some time now, but I haven’t been able to determine its origin. It could be from creationist groups that believe dinosaurs coexisted with people as an end-run around evolution, but more likely it represents an effort to belittle that view. Creationists are the ultimate backward-looking crowd. Fearful of Hell, they see evolution as tantamount to damnation, and must eradicate the biological evil for the sake of their immaterial souls. Reading through the comments on the Six Dollar Shirts page, I had to wonder. Why are we so concerned with getting the past right?

Don’t get me wrong—I have an undying interest in the history of religions and the origins of religious thought. Nobody wants to get the past wrong, otherwise the present is incorrect. Dinosaurs, however, are the great corrective to a major historical error. It is easy to assume that homo sapiens represents the highest point possible on the earthly scale of measures. Dinosaurs remind us that anything can happen. Up until about 65 million years ago, there would have been no reason to suppose that dinosaurs wouldn’t be here forever. Of course, Adam was over 65 million years in the future, and even if he evolved, his primate lineage was tiny and trying to avoid the gigantic footsteps of their distant Jurassic cousins at the time. Some scientists theorize that if the asteroid never hit, the dinosaurs may have evolved distinctly humanoid features. After all, we’re clearly at the top.

The past must always be approached with humility. Relativity may tell us that it is still here, but I can’t even access the moments just seconds ago as I typed these words. The delete key is a dangerous thing. Science has pretty much unequivocally demonstrated the evolution is a fact of life. It is our past. No matter what Ken Ham says, I’m pretty sure even Moses would’ve noted the spectacle if dinosaurs trudged aboard the ark. So Jesus never met any raptors in real life. Some of the commentators on the tee-shirt page appear offended at the blasphemy of the joke. Or maybe they’re just being ironic. In either case, that’s now the past and the best that any of us can do is comment on it and watch out for the big feet that are stomping this way.

Image credit: Dropzink, Wikicommons

Image credit: Dropzink, Wikicommons

A Toy Story

As a life-long pacifist, it might seem strange that I find myself waxing sentimental over a military-themed toy. You see, I just found out that G. I. Joe is turning fifty. For those of us who grew up in the 1960s, G. I. Joe was the acceptable “boy doll” (now, technically, “action figure”) that all the guys had. Some of us had several. We didn’t have much money, but Christmas always gave an opportunity to accessorize Joe with either the latest developments (life-like hair in a buzz cut, pull-string vocalizations, “kung-fu grip”) or the many vehicles that could be purchased separately. As the Vietnam War wore on, Joe turned his interests to science and humanitarian causes, but boys like to anthropomorphize as much as girls do, and Joe continued to get himself into many bizarre adventures. At least in our apartment he was known for fighting dinosaurs, robots, medieval knights, and even General George Custer. Joe was a fighting kind of guy. He had guns and gear and shoes that were almost impossible to remove when you wanted to change uniforms (only when Mom was out of the room). So G. I. Joe has been around for half a century now. I can’t remember childhood without him.

G. I. Joe often had near fatal encounters in our home. One of them, the talking one with life-like hair, suffered a severe war wound that left his bottom half completely dissociated from his top. I don’t think we kept the lower abdomen and legs—there was something slightly unnerving about plastic buttocks—but I did keep his top half, the talking bit. It shocked me when my Mom asked if she could take him to church. We were a “Bible believing” family since it was the days before people much talked about Fundamentalists. My mother was a Sunday School teacher. (Thus my early amazement at the magic of flannelgraphs, still primarily used for religious teaching.) We didn’t believe in evolution, and we certainly thought war was a bad thing. I did wonder, though, why Mom wanted to take a toy to church, particularly a dismembered, violent one.

Being the son of the teacher did have some perks. I knew enough to read my Bible and learn the lessons, but we were not given sneak previews for Sunday School. Seeing the trailer might make actually attending superfluous. So when Joe went to church I learned why: people are not animals. The pull-string voice box, although the sounds emerged from holes in his perforated chest, was proof. People talk, animals don’t. We didn’t evolve after all. The other kids were seemingly impressed by my evangelistic Joe. Who would’ve thought that “G. I. Joe, U.S. Army, reporting for duty” could have ever converted a lost soul? On Ebay, I see, some of these vintage talkers can fetch up to $600. Mine, I’m sure, ended up in a landfill somewhere in rural Pennsylvania where, I have no doubts, he is still preaching to the other toys about the dangers of evolution.

The ultimate adventure...

The ultimate adventure…

Mad Charles

Moving to New Jersey was made easier by Weird N.J. I found out about the magazine while still domiciled in Wisconsin when the series of books produced a Weird Wisconsin edition. I read it cover-to-cover and learned about the magazine. When weirdness would have it that we’d be moving to that self-same New Jersey, I began reading the magazine religiously. Lately, however, it has become more mainstream and less weird, but still, it is a great source of local information. We landed in Somerville because of its educational reputation and closeness to Piscataway, where I worked. I’ve always had a thing about being able to pronounce the name of the town in which I live (and I’ve even resided in Oconomowoc), so Piscataway was out. In any case, Somerville High School has an engineering program and the expected robotics team that goes along with such pedagogy. When my daughter joined the team, the whole family was drawn into four years of endless fundraising and promotion for an underfinanced club. So it was weird when I saw a story called “Rock em’ [sic] Sock ‘em Robot: Somerville N.J. vs. Mad Charles, the World’s First Singer Songwriter Karate Robot” in the latest Weird N.J. In my four years in the club, I’d never heard of Mad Charles.

Robots and religion are topics I’ve often related on this blog, so I read with amazement that about two decades before FIRST Robotics ever got its start, there was a somewhat famous robot in Somerville. Eugene Viscione was the inventor of Mad Charles, a robot that was built to help improve karate moves. The robot, as often happens in small towns, went on to other things, such as cutting records that, according to the article by J. A. Goins, are quite rare. In the 1970’s, however, Mad Charles was a local sensation, now all but forgotten some four decades later. There were even Mad Charles tee-shirts available. While we sat dreaming up new ways to get money out of the locals, and even set up a booth for the Somerville street fair not far from where Mad Charles at one time could have been found, nobody mentioned the karate robot. I doubt anyone had heard of it.

History is a fickle friend. Of course, being from a small town myself, I know it is very hard to get noticed, and even harder to be remembered. So those sleepy, pre-dawn weekend bus rides to robotics competitions, it was sometimes easy to consider how one gets overlooked. This past November, many hardly noticed as NBC didn’t make a big deal of it, FIRST robots opened the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. Somerville’s latest robot was not among the horde (we have always had a problem keeping enough charged batteries on hand), but as the robots rolled through Herald Square, I was thinking of Mad Charles and a legacy that has been forgotten. Come to think of it, I guess that is weird after all.

A Somerville robot (center)

A Somerville robot (center)