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The Plague

Plagues&Peoples Sitting on the bus next to some guy with a consumptive cough may not be the best place to read Plagues and Peoples. But William H. McNeill’s book is considered a kind of modern classic, and since the Middle Ages have been on my mind, I persisted anyway. I did wrap my scarf around my face, though. Plagues and Peoples isn’t just the story of the Black Death, however. It is a sweeping account of pandemic and endemic outbreaks and how they form recognizable patterns with human populations. Perhaps the most striking aspect of McNeill’s study is how determinative plagues have been for many decisive aspects of human history, including religious ones. Indeed, religion keeps cropping up in the book. One reason is because of the roles religions play in human suffering—to be more precise, I should say in trying to alleviate human suffering. (Yes, some religions definitely cause it as well, but that’s a story for another time.) McNeill even suggests that fear of disease might have led to the parting of the ways between Swiss and German Reformers, playing a role in the divergence of what would become the Presbyterian and Lutheran flavors of Protestantism. The spread of some religions was facilitated by the ravages of disease.

During the period of the spread of the Plague, however, McNeill notes that those cultures attended by Christian and Buddhist institutions managed to fare better than irreligious, or, perhaps more accurately, folk-religion ones. Once people figured out Plague was contagious, they sensibly kept away from the sick, but the moral teachings of Christianity and Buddhism compelled the religious to tend to the ill, with the result that more people in those religious traditions survived. That’s not a universal declaration on McNeill’s part, but it is a fact worth bearing in mind. The risk to self paid off when more individuals cared for each other rather than just heading for the hills when the Black Death came along. On the other hand, religions frequently insist on behavior that spreads disease as well. The great pilgrimages to Mecca or the Ganges often brought great crowds together where disease could quickly spread. The passing of the peace in some churches is more like the passing of the plague.

In ancient, pagan times, disease had its own deities. In ancient Ugarit, Resheph, the archer, was also the god of pestilence. Pestilence frequently accompanied the horrors of warfare, and even Apollo opens the Trojan War by firing his arrows at the Greek troops. Gods are the source of disease. One of the ancient truisms, which may not be taken as true today, is that the force that wounds is also the force that heals. Instead of ignoring Resheph, you pray to him, make offerings to him. He can slay, but he can also heal. In the monotheistic and even non-theistic traditions McNeill mentions, the focus shifted to the care of those suffering rather than the offering of sacrifice to unhearing gods. Even the Romans were impressed by Christian care for one another. Of course, that was well before Obamacare offered the hope of medical treatment for those cut off from lucrative employment. The Christian response now, it seems, is to complain about others taking advantage of my surplus cash made over to a program to prevent illness in one’s fellow citizens. Take the bus to work, you’ll see what I mean.

Better Watch Out

Among the more intriguing mythologies of Noah, the movie, is the presence of the “Transformer-like” Watchers. The more biblically literate of the film’s viewers will know that Watchers are mentioned in the Bible, but in the book of Daniel—chronologically the latest book in the Hebrew Bible—and not in Genesis. Daniel does not tell us what Watchers are, but it uses the term in parallel with Holy Ones, implying that they are angels. In the apocryphal book of Enoch, there is quite a bit of mythology concerning Watchers, and they are tied back to the flood story by the strange first four verses of Genesis 6 that note the sons of God saw human women were beautiful and took them, populating the earth with giants as a result. The Bible, as typical, is very cryptic about all of this, leaving imagination to fill in the gaps. Watchers were later associated with fallen angels, and they are sometimes referred to as Grigori, the Slavic form of the name. Biblically we know practically nothing of them.

Watchers have long had a home in the paranormal speculation crowd. Associated with ancient astronauts, a modern mythology has grown up around who the Watchers supposedly really were. This is an outgrowth of the Judaic myth that came from the non-biblical texts that themselves grew out of such esoteric references as those to Enoch, nephilim (fallen ones), and giants, in Genesis. That antediluvian world was a fascinating period in which just about anything goes, but nothing is explained. Even the ark itself is described in terms so vague that it really can’t be reconstructed precisely. The Watchers, according to Genesis in any case, weren’t there. One gets the sense that ancient readers, anxious for a logical roadmap of the divine world, were quick to fill in the gaps that the Bible leaves.

Although Christian theology would eventually declare God omniscient, this does not characterize the deity of the Hebrew Bible. Even before the discovery of Oceania or the New World, the ancient Mediterranean and West Asia were too large for any one God to know it all. Watchers were, most likely, members of the divine council whose purview was to view. Keep an eye on what people were up to. Fallen angels, later equated with demons, were a convenient way to explain evil in a world made by a deity who is only good. And who doesn’t know that feeling of being watched, especially when being naughty? According to Genesis 6 not even the children of God are exempt from such behavior. The Bible gives us plenty to work with, if we’re only willing to use our imaginations.

Somebody's eye is watching...

Somebody’s eye is watching…

Roman Undead

ZombieBibleLike most monster movie fans, I enjoy a zombie film now and then. I’ve even heard some very sophisticated people commenting positively on Shaun of the Dead. One of the standard features of the zombie is its forthright impossibility—reanimated dead are the stuff of humanity’s earliest nightmares, but in our rational minds we know that bodies missing vital organs, limbs, and blood, don’t just get up and try to eat the living. That doesn’t prevent me from watching zombie movies, and even considering participating in a zombie walk. Nevertheless, I’d not read any zombie books. That suddenly changed when I sat down with Stant Litore’s What Our Eyes Have Witnessed: The Zombie Bible. Literally the day I started reading it, a publisher sent me a copy of Suzanne Robb’s Z-Boat. I was surrounded by zombies.

I had decided to read What Our Eyes Have Witnessed because I was curious what a Zombie Bible might be. I quickly learned that it was an apologetic exercise where zombies are used as a vehicle for evangelization. It was difficult, however, to take the idea seriously. When a zombie breaks through the door of a Roman villa at the start of the book, I found the thought strangely funny. Many zombie movies go in that direction, acknowledging that they could never really happen, so they decide to give viewers a laugh or two along the way. Litore’s parsimony, however, became clear right away. This is a retelling of the martyrdom of Polycarp, but with zombies. It is a curious mix of Roman history, Christianity under persecution, torture porn, and the assurance of salvation. The premise is that Cain’s slaying of Abel resulted in zombies and their soulless souls must be put to rest. If they bite you, you become a zombie—you know the story. Meanwhile, the Roman authorities believe the Christians are to blame and decide to kill off the historical Polycarp.

The story dwells on the emotions of the Christians, in a kind of maudlin evangelicalism, as they try to avoid both flesh-eating zombies and Roman authorities. Zombies, it is said, are driven by their constant hunger and only Christianity has the true bread. This is a creative account of how the early Christian movement dealt with persecution. The zombies, however, feel somewhat superfluous in that situation, for the terror of imperial persecution was real enough. The zombies, however, aren’t after brains, and they don’t speak. They want to eat and the only thing they can digest, even if they have no stomachs, is other people. As an allegory it almost works, but zombies are a kind of fifth column in what was a very real struggle for early religious tolerance. Ironically, the undead and resurrection are never juxtaposed, although they are the most obvious way to connect the dots.

Disconnect the Dots

In the on-going loss of touch between academia and the world outside, we forever hear of the triumphal march of secularism. Academics are often loath to see the habits of the laity as being of much significance. In the book industry, however, publishers have to pay attention to what the public reads. This is one reason, I’m discovering, that some academics find it difficult to publish. Some research topics just don’t reach the wider readership’s interest. It’s an editor’s job to try to match readers with books. Among the tools we use are magazines such as Publisher’s Weekly and the Library Journal. Although it is impossible to say what people are actually reading, these periodicals trace buying and checking-out habits. And it doesn’t take a genius to see that books somehow tied to religion are frequently at the top of the list. One of the great industry trackers, Bowker, even has three distinct databases for book sales: children’s, academic, and Christian. Religion, in other words, is of tremendous interest.

IMG_1279In the January issue of the Library Journal, for instance, there is the list of top books checked out of libraries since the last reporting period. Topping the non-fiction lists? The top four spots are occupied by books tied in some way to religion: David and Goliath, Killing Jesus, I Am Malala, and Zealot. People want to know about religion. Academics just don’t want to hear it. As a perpetual bride’s maid, metaphorically speaking, of the higher education that jilted me almost a decade ago, I hopefully watch hiring trends as the rejection letters pile up in my inbox. It is a diminishing pool. Look at the industry reporting tools: religion is irrelevant at best, puerile or worse when it comes to measuring maturity. People are dying over it, but we’d rather just not know. No wonder they call it the ivory tower—spotless as, well, a bride.

It is often a surprise to many academics how few people buy their books. As someone who had written a couple of academic tomes, I know how I daydream that my work on some obscure topic will take off and suddenly appear in the Library Journal, or Publisher’s Weekly. In actuality, the reading public will decide on the basis of what publishers make available. A writer such as myself, an independent scholar, lacks credibility and is not asked to write books. And universities aren’t hiring scholars of religion much any more. Some seminaries have even moved more toward the secular in their hiring practices, since, universities tell them, that’s the direction things are going. Those who buy books, or check them out from libraries, however, are telling a much different story. But we are much too sophisticated to look for signs among the laity. The more we progress in knowledge, the less we really know.

Floaters and Swimmers

Noah seems to have found a renewed audience these days. Nothing like a major motion picture to make even one of the most famous biblical characters even more notable. And the spin-off stories are now considered news as well. One of the many impossible stories of the Bible, the ark, as scholars have long known, would not have been a physical possibility. Quite apart from the building in days before metal smelting was invented, there was the problem of volume. Since evolution is ruled out de rigueur, each separate species had to have been represented, since no changes are allowed from that time to this. The sheer number of them, especially since new ones are being discovered even now, was deemed impossible to fit on an ark of even biblical dimensions. Add in the food necessary for 150 days, especially considering the carnivores, and the human-power required to care for all those beasts (only eight are permitted by Genesis, and Noah was 600 years old at the time) and you get the picture. Then Mesopotamian flood stories even older were discovered. It was quickly recognized that this was a myth with a larger message to tell.

Now, according to geobeats, and to the relief, I’m sure, of Russell Crowe, physics students at the University of Leicester have calculated that the ark could have floated. The story, in a one-minute sound bite, is a little shy on details. The students used the biblical cubit, and figured there were 35,000 distinct species at the time. I’m not sure where that number originates, but it doesn’t take into account how Noah got the koala’s to swim from Australia. According to present evidence, the earth is home to about eight-million-seven-hundred-thousand different species. And since they can’t evolve, that’s an awful lot of swimmers.

According to the university website, this was not intended as an exercise in biblical literalism. “The aim of the module is for the students to learn about peer review and scientific publishing. The students are encouraged to be imaginative with their topics, and find ways to apply basic physics to the weird, the wonderful and the everyday,” according to Dr. Mervyn Roy, the instructor. The students, working the math angle, didn’t expect the results to work. That they did surprised everyone. Except Noah, one presumes. The story makes clear that the number of animals was used to calculate mass, not dimensions, so squeezing all the beasts in might have been quite another chore altogether. Miraculous, one might say. As for me, I am waiting to see that pair of koalas swim from Darwin to the Persian Gulf, and then back again once the waters finally recede.

Don't forget to see the movie!

Don’t forget to see the movie!

Heaven Can Wait

“Like a good neighbor, State Farm is there.” So the jingle goes. Or went. I’ve only met my upstairs neighbors once. Twice now. Apparently last weekend I slept through the fire alarm—one of the dangers of awaking ridiculously early on a daily basis. The neighbors found the source of the smoke and turned off the furnace in the basement, but told me first thing in the morning before the coffee really kicked in. I avoided a close call, perhaps. What if they’d not been home?

I have no delusions about understanding how the Internet works. I’m still trying to figure out the telegraph. Perhaps having this inconsequential blog has put me on somebody’s radar, or maybe it’s just some bored robot that searches for strange combinations of words in the wee hours of the night. In any case, I ended up with an email with the trailer for Heaven Is For Real embedded in it. I recall when the book was on the New York Times bestseller list, and I suppose the Easter weekend release date is no coincidence, but the trailer still bothered me a bit. It’s not the resurrection part—the film industry wouldn’t get very far without that trope—but it is the implications of what heaven would be like. I haven’t read the book, but apparently Colton Burpo had a near-death experience and then for a considerable time afterward began describing things that were impossible for him to know. A miscarriage where his sister died, what his grandfather looked like as a young man, what his parents were doing when he was dead in the hospital. Talk about your spooky effects at a distance!

Despite my penchant for watching scary movies, I don’t think I’ll see Heaven Is For Real. There’s just too much emotional build-up here, and Life After Life traumatized me for weeks a couple decades back. Still, I am very interested in the possible explanations for what might have been going on. Near-death experiences have never been adequately explained. Scientists suggest that a lot can happen in a complex brain in a matter of nano-seconds, and we have no chronograph precise enough to know whether the thoughts and images happened before death, during death, or during resuscitation. Still, how people frequently know precisely where others were, who were not in the room at the time, and how they heard things that, medically speaking, they couldn’t have heard, remains eerie and hopeful at the same time. What does appear to be without question is that consciousness is far from being explained.

Botticini's vision

Botticini’s vision

Heaven is always described as pleasant. That concept differs radically for people, and you have to wonder how it can be one-size-fits-all. Some people prefer to be in crowds, while others like to be alone. Some like it hot. Some like it cold. And those who experience near-death phenomena often report having a body of some sort “up there.” Some people would prefer a different body. According to the trailer, Colton says we’re all young over yonder. For me, such things are far more about questions than answers. We don’t know what goes on after death. Nearly every religion ever invented says that clearly there’s more to the story. Some say we come back, others say we stay away. Maybe it is different for each. Maybe it is just a matter of having good neighbors after all.

Sowing the Wind

F5On May 31 in 1985, I was working at a church camp outside Uniontown, Pennsylvania when some severe storms rolled through the area. I had trouble sleeping through the thunder and lightning. I awoke the next morning to hear the news, in groggy disbelief, that tornadoes had invaded the county where my family lived. Frantic for their safety I tried to phone, but lines were down. It turned out all right—the nearest twister had been about five miles away from my home. This event was a shock because I grew up believing we never had tornadoes in Pennsylvania. I have always been terrified of them. I suppose that’s why I wrote my little book on weather in the Psalms. I just finished reading Mark Levine’s F5: Devastation, Survival, and the Most Violent Tornado Outbreak of the Twentieth Century. I’m not sure why I’m compelled to read about what scares me so much, but I suspect it’s because tornadoes have a whiff of the divine about them. Indeed, Levine’s book makes several reference to religious imagery when describing the utter destruction of Limestone, Alabama during the Super Outbreak of April 1974. It gives me little comfort that the storms that raked Ohio, Pennsylvania and Ontario eleven years later were the second deadliest outbreak following that of the book’s exploration, up to that time. There’s so much left to chance, with tornadoes.

Despite the complete lack of any intentionality behind the raw forces of nature, the phrase “finger of God” has become a fixture in the tornadic lexicon. Perhaps it is because the human perception of divine intervention has always been sporadically applied. One person’s miracle is another’s nightmare. Obeying only the complex rules of meteorology, the weather has ways of its own that even computer models cannot yet fathom. We still stand helpless in the face of the tornado. I have often thought, without a whole lot of data to back me up, that weather has played a major role in the human understanding of the divine. Quite apart from the obvious celestial orientation, the weather is easily forgotten until it turns bad, and when it does there is nothing humanly possible to do about it.

In April of 2011 a super outbreak of 358 tornadoes swept through the eastern United States and Canada, killing 348 people. In terms of damage, it was one of the costliest natural disasters in US history. And the capriciousness of the tornado stands at the center of it all. F5 is a hard book to read. The story practically turns its own pages, but the loss in human terms in the cold face of a planet that doesn’t exist for us is sobering indeed. Many religious people in the south were asking how God could allow children to be killed and hundreds of people maimed both physically and mentally for the rest of their lives. They prayed for answers that never came. And this may be the cruelest aspect of the apparently random nature of the weather. It maintains the right to kill, and prayers seem to bounce back from that brazen sky that comes just before a tornado strikes, and especially afterwards. Skies are silent. When they are not, it is time to duck and cover.

Heavenly Beings

FromAngelsToAliens Religious tolerance suggests that it’s less important what you believe than it is that you believe. After all, where you are born—socioeconomically as well as geographically—determines which options are open to you. And now that the world is virtually inter-connected, the media must play into the idea of what we believe as concepts mix and brew and distill. Lynn Schofield Clark’s From Angels to Aliens: Teenagers, the Media, and the Supernatural, is a study that takes all of this seriously. We know teens as the ultimate disenfranchised demographic. For those of us who were once there, no doubt concerning that status exists. But what of teens in an age where God seems to be effacing and angels and aliens invading? At least according to the media. Clark interviews several teens and their families about their belief in the supernatural, and, in keeping with what the statistics of national surveys continually show, belief in some world beyond ours is indeed deeply rooted. Many youth, however, have trouble distinguishing angels from aliens.

Not literally, of course. Rather, supernatural entities are so much a part of our media experience, and church attendance so little, that clear ideas of how these things all fit together, if they do, are lacking. Scientists are looking for life in space while denying that if it exists it ever could have intentionally travelled here. We are, after all, the most intelligent species in an infinite universe. (Did I say that belief in God was effacing?) Socially, however, angels are much more acceptable than aliens. Belief in aliens is easily equated with mental instability, while belief in angels is normal, if not a little naive. To the average person, it seems that we’re not alone. As many popular media portray, however, God remains silent and we have to wonder if there’s anyone really driving a universe with no real up or down and with an exploding singularity at its center. It’s all a little disorienting—rather like being a teenager.

Clark remains wonderfully open-minded as she asks her questions to the younger generation. I felt a bit of recognition when she mentioned her church experiences in theologically conservative western Pennsylvania, the area in which I grew up, and where neither aliens nor angels were particularly uncommon. And we were in a media black hole in those days. Stations from Pittsburgh or Erie didn’t boost their signal to reach those of us in the boondocks with much reception beyond the big three. Of course, there was nothing beyond ABC, CBS, and NBC. Well, there was PBS in the background, but this was a universe still awaiting its big bang. Angels were good, aliens were evil, and God never remained silent for very long. And nobody really cared what teenagers thought. We have evolved since then, but we still look to the sky and wonder who, if anyone, is out there.

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.

477px-071A.David_Slays_Goliath

Clash of the Watchers

NoahMovie

I don’t know about you, but I think I got gypped with my Bible. I have just come out of Noah where I saw amazing sights and a seriously troubled Noah to whom God refuses to say a single word. Controversy still swirls around the web concerning the movie, but I honestly have to say that it was more like Clash of the Titans (2010) than anything else. Except a thin part of the plot—and a few character names—that were borrowed from the Bible, this could have been Herodotus rather than Moses. I don’t recall finding any exploding lava angels in Genesis 1-11, and magic rocks that seem to fit better into a Mormon worldview than a biblical one. Gopher-wood trees grow incredibly fast, and Noah sure fights very well for being a six-hundred year-old man. So why all the fuss? This is a movie folks, not scripture. For the price of the ticket you can buy yourself a new Bible and read the entire story in fifteen minutes (it’s just over two chapters long). If it’s an action movie you’re looking for, I thought The Avengers was better.

What struck me most about the movie, apart from the watchers, which were admittedly an improvement on Holy Writ, was the subtext of evangelicalism. Noah, when he decides to build the ark appears suddenly with an evangelically approved haircut. He also had grown decided misanthropic, insisting that the ark is only for the animals’ sake, and that he only allows Shem to have a wife because he thinks she is barren. When he considers finding wives for Ham and Japheth, there is a huge meat for sex kind of deal going on in Tubal-Cain’s city that disgusts Noah so much that his vegetarian righteousness declares that all people will die off once the ark runs aground. And, of course, he will have to kill his granddaughters. This is a dark and tormented Noah who drinks to forget his problems in a world where God only speaks in cryptic dreams and one gets the sense that Noah is very Republican in his lack of compassion. Take out the whole human race while you’ve got the chance.

The movie is filled with mixed messages. Noah certainly doesn’t appear to live up to his name (“comfort,” by simple translation), and although the supernatural is everywhere, a compassionate deity is utterly lacking. Species die off when Tubal-Cain gets hungry. And the very sign of blessing is the skin shed by the serpent that led to the fall. What are we supposed to learn from this? A vague, Avatar-esque “the planet is good” message does give me a little hope, but seeing Noah poising a knife above an infant’s head only because she’s female makes me a bit squeamish. Noah obeys simply for obedience’s sake and people are mere stains on an otherwise ideal world. Before the fall Adam and Eve veritably glowed. Adam stoops to pick up the serpent’s skin while Eve engineers the fall of all. The special effects are good, but the story, it seems to me, is all wet. That’s the gospel truth.

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.

Making Sense

Science is more than meets the eye. Even since I was a child I’ve tried to follow what I can of science without a real microscope or telescope and a doctorate in some incomprehensible subject like chemistry. I guess that’s why I’m a fan of popular science—the kind that is written so a layperson might understand, or at least pretend to. Indeed, one of the complaints from scientists and others alike is that science has become so complex that only a specialist can really understand. I suspect that’s one reason religion continues to thrive; anybody can be an expert in religion, even a scientist. Nevertheless, science is based on empirical observation, now with instruments fine tuned to receive data better than human senses. So I sometimes watch Through the Wormhole to find out what is happening in the realm of pure knowledge. Although simplified to the digestibility level of the laity, Through the Wormhole tries to stay on base with interviews with mainstream scientists who are working at the cutting edge of what’s out there. I recently watched the episode entitled “Is There a Sixth Sense?”

I have no way of knowing what scientists think of such things, but I was glad to see the everyday experience of normal people addressed in this particular episode. Who hasn’t felt that weird pre-cognition from time-to-time, or felt like they were being stared at only to learn that they were? These might be the spooky effects at a distance that so unnerved Einstein, but they are part of human experience. We all go through it, but mainstream science comes up with a convoluted scheme whereby our brains project what actually happened back in memory before it happened so that it just seems like we knew something was about to transpire. Of they point to false positives—how many times did we think something was about to happen and it didn’t? We just don’t remember those. Still, this particular show brings together mainstream physicists and theorists usually considered outsiders, such as Dean Radin and Rupert Sheldrake (strangely omitted from the IMDB cast list). Several smart people, it seems, wonder if we are really all connected.

Mainstream science has grown terrified of metaphysics. The suggestion that anything might be remotely like the world of religion is frightening to those who believe we just need more precise calipers and higher resolution imagery to explain an entirely physical universe. This little universe we carry around in our skulls, however, is attuned to what we might just have to call the “spiritual” or some such moniker, just to differentiate it from the particles that we are told make up everything. Or is it strings? Don’t ask me; I couldn’t tell an up quark from a down quark. Interestingly, one is even called a “charm.” And then there’s the God particle, the Higgs’ boson that briefly reminded the world that Edinburgh is a top-rate university, although, as we all know, there’s no place like Harvard. For the rest of us, however, there’s the everyday business of work to face. And if I try to read a blog while on the clock, I definitely have a sense of being stared at, even when I’m alone in here.

One of the last fearless scientists

One of the last fearless scientists

Inhabit Eden

InhabitingEdenNashotah House, although now a name recognized by only a handful of mostly disgruntled Episcopalians, used to have a name in higher education. Real intellectuals found their way there—scholars who saw that spiritual life did not equal brain-death. Of course, for some that may be the case. While I was on the faculty there, one of the student wives (it is a fully residential campus) was castigated by others for going through the garbage and pulling out discarded recyclables. “How extreme can you get?” they’d say in disbelief. Not extreme enough, I’d say. I just finished reading Patricia K. Tull’s Inhabiting Eden: Christians, the Bible, and the Ecological Crisis. Tull, a retired seminary professor from Louisville Presbyterian, offers a much-needed perspective on the real apocalypse we’re bringing upon ourselves, often justified by the Bible. Many Fundamentalist sects declare the world to be short-lived and for our “domination” because of Genesis. Tull, a biblical scholar, challenges that myopic view of Genesis and suggests that the Bible commends care for our planet. Christians, she indicates, should lead the way in caring for our ailing planet.

Although it is written for the average educated reader, this is not an easy book. It is distressing to read about the many ways that we have blindly (and that’s only putting it in the least culpable language imaginable) set about destroying our environment. Misreading “have dominion over” as “dominate,” Christians have often seen their prerogative as mastery, frequently cruel, over all others. Pollution? The world’s going to end soon, so let’s get the rapture out of here—and throw your waste on those left behind. Economic inequality? You’ll always have the poor, so exploit them. Agri-business? People cannot live by bread alone, so let’s make a huge, exploitative business out of growing crops and processing them to death. Ironically, and not in the good sense, much of this thinking comes from “Christian” entrepreneurs, people who see nothing wrong with making a few extra bucks on the way off the planet. We fry ourselves with our greenhouse gasses and poison ourselves with our drinking water. It’s all gonna burn.

Tull gives the lie to all these misplaced concepts that some claim are biblical. Sure, the Bible is no environmentalist handbook, but then, things weren’t so extreme a couple of millennia ago. We hadn’t yet developed the technology truly to dominate, radiate, and eradicate this planet. Besides, the early Christians figured they’d be long gone a couple hundred centuries ago. It should’ve been clear, even as the Enlightenment lit up, that we were in this for the long haul. And we’ve got only one home. The ethical implications fall thick and fast—those who destroy the environment are worse than war criminals, for it is the entire planet that pays the price for such thoughtless greed. Many turn their noses up at the humble street person collecting bottles and cans for a few pennies. It may not be their motivation to clean up the planet, but then, saints who are willing to dig through the garbage are seldom recognized for what they are.

They Call it Civilization

An interesting article about the Assyrians appeared in last week’s Guardian, On Art blog. The piece by Jonathan Jones, describes a piece of ancient Assyrian art on auction that the British Museum is not interested in buying. Having toured the Assyrian galleries a time or two, more’s the pity, but Jones puckishly suggests that the museum may be afraid of the curse inscribed on the piece. We all know of the story of ancient artifacts that come with value-added supernatural attributes—it’s a standard staple of Hollywood horror. Jones knows, however, that the museum isn’t really afraid of a curse, but he does display an interesting attitude toward the Assyrians. You see, the Assyrians were conquerors. They knew how to intimidate potential enemies long before their armies ever set out on the move. The imagery displays powerful men, ripped and ready, killing lions in hand-to-claw combat. Jones rightly points out that some of this is disturbing. What strikes me as interesting is a probably unintended subtext.

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“Assyrian art is certainly awe-inspiring – but perhaps not civilised,” Jones writes. As if civilization necessitates politeness. Perhaps it should, but civilization began in the very region south of ancient Assyria, among the Sumerians who were a culture emulated by later Mesopotamians. There is no doubt that the Mesopotamians gave us many of our beloved Bible stories, in their original, unedited form. They gave us organized religion, writing, and the wheel. Comparing the Assyrians to the Egyptians and Greeks, Jones suggests they were uncivilized. I would beg to differ. The Egyptians and Greeks could also be quite violent. The Assyrian aesthetic was a bit different, to be sure, but there is a raw beauty to it. And I have to wonder why, from our western perspective, what comes out of Iraq seems to hint at something insidious or sinister.

I’ve always been a fan of the Mesopotamians. Since a Ph.D. program only lasts so long (for those of us perpetually struggling to make ends meet), I did not have time to indulge my Assyriological fantasies once I learned of them. I was deep into Ugarit, and although I loved the tales of Asherah and Baal, there was something more ancient, more powerful, lying to the east. I often thought that if I could’ve had more time, my interests would’ve definitely drifted toward the progenitors of civilization. Yes, some of the art-work is deeply troubling, but the Assyrians, indeed, the Babylonians and Sumerians, looked at the world from the viewpoint of cultural creators. Civilization involves violence, no matter how we try to hide it. When I stand in London, taking in those Assyrian reliefs I see an honesty that is carefully hidden by the Egyptians and Greeks. And I think I prefer to know the truth of the situation, curse or not.

Apocalypse Then

Krakatoa Sometimes everything blows up in your face. Literally. Simon Winchester’s Krakatoa has been on my reading list for years. Boys seem to have a fascination with volcanoes that they never outgrow, and given the world-wide implications of Krakatoa’s 1883 eruption, it is a tragedy that keeps me ever curious. We live on an angry planet. I know that’s projecting agency on nature, but like thunderstorms, to a human sensibility, volcanoes are raging phenomena. As Winchester points out, many indigenous cultures in the “ring of fire” consider volcanoes either gods or messages from the divine world. Honestly, I didn’t read Krakatoa to find out about religion, but it was there nevertheless. For human beings, it has an unparalleled explanatory power.

Krakatoa caused a stint of global cooling after its nineteenth-century eruption, leading to failed crops throughout much of the world, and perhaps played into larger political issues that would stress a world already attempting to cope with fast changes in technology. The story of the volcano is fascinating enough, but the religious dimension, it seems, played itself out more than just in a Gilligan’s Island sort of way. Despite what analysts say, people take their religious beliefs very seriously. So when I reached the end of the eruption, I wondered how Winchester was going to spin this book out for another fifty pages. It turns out that among the effects of the volcano was a religious rebellion. The East Indies, as they were called, were under Dutch colonial rule. This led to a bit of tension with the native Muslims (Islam has long been a major religion in Indonesia). As Winchester points out, the Islam in the region before the eruption was a syncretistic, almost laissez faire, faith. It blended with Hinduism and local beliefs, and even tolerated the Christian Dutch.

Symbolically, or literally, after the explosion that killed thousands, a religious movement that had been waiting for a sign came to life. A more strict Muslim sect saw the events as a predicted display of divine anger. A short-lived rebellion broke out, cut off by Christian repeating rifles, that led to a more strict version of Islam in the region. Although Winchester doesn’t linger on this too long—he is writing about a natural disaster after all—it does raise many very human responses. In the event of a cataclysm, science is cold comfort. We may rationalize, but human beings also feel. And it is religion that will attempt to answer for that pit in your stomach or that worry in your head. That’s what it does best. Science tells us that we can’t really stop volcanoes—we are too small and the planet too overwhelming. Religion, on the other hand, offers a grip on the very forces behind cataclysm—imagined or not. Although seeing natural disasters as divine punishment is never reasonable it is, in the words of a famous philosopher, human, all too human.