Category Archives: Posts

Non-podcasts

Candle, Book, and Bell

AmericaBewitchedHaving married into a family descended from the surviving relatives of women executed as witches at Salem, I have long been saddened and fascinated by the story. Not just the story, but also by the cultural milieu. We all know about the witch trials and the tragic massacre of innocents (mostly women) that took place in late Medieval and early modern Europe; the Salem miscarriage of justice came at the very end of that, after the start of the Enlightenment. Owen Davies is also fascinated by witchcraft, and his America Bewitched: The story of witchcraft after Salem is an exploration—mostly via newspapers and court trial records—of witchcraft accusations in America that continued up until about the 1950s. The coincidence of the 1950s with the “witch hunts” of McCarthyism will not escape some readers, and indeed, from the time of Arthur Miller’s nemesis on, those who vociferate against witches have kept rather quiet. Unless, of course, you count those who subsequently feared “terrorists” or any other group that might be profiled. We could learn from history, if we’d let ourselves.

Davies’s book brings together largely overlooked, nearly forgotten instances of how many cultures, including that cultural mix of Europeans who were to become “whites,” feared and sometimes killed witches. The difference from Salem was that almost all of these cases took place at the hands of self-appointed accusers (vigilantes) who hounded, punished, or killed someone suspected of being a witch. Surveys still show that a large percentage of people in the United States, although not a majority, believe in witches. It is an idea that has a primal hold on human psyches, and, as Davies points out, it is often used to explain misfortune. As I read this book I reflected how Americans come across as pretty gullible and not exactly sensible in this matter. The germanic strains of immigrants, it seems, were particularly susceptible to such beliefs. We also find witches, however, among Native Americans and African Americans as well. Misfortunate plays no favorites.

There are those who claim technology will save our culture. The other day a friend reminded me of the third of Arthur C. Clarke’s laws: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” Even the most scientific of us knows, whether or not s/he will admit it, that “spooky action at a distance” does occur. It is perhaps only a matter of time before we find the hidden laws that operate the mechanism, but I can’t help but feel a little bit uncanny when I see more and more lifelike robots operating with what seem like human intentions. Of course, those intentions are programmed by humans. And it is often otherwise rational adults who with gun in hand, up until fairly recent times, accused flesh-and-blood neighbors as witches. America Bewitched can be a scary book, especially since unlike vampires, witches do cast their reflections in a mirror.

On Vocation

“There ain’t no use in complaining,” Bryan Adams once wrote, “when you got a job to do.” If I may be pardoned from removing rock and roll from its love song context. As a guy who’s suffered unemployment several times, I have to agree that having a job is good. Of course, such goodness has its natural limitations. Switching jobs too often means starting out over and over again. In today’s world, that means that at half-a-century-old you might well find yourself having to earn vacation days from nothing all over again. So when family vacation plans were made this year, one of us—the one with a new job—could not be included. My family is out near the west coast while I remain here on the east. Once upon a time we were somewhere in the middle. I’m glad they have the opportunity. This post isn’t about sour grapes, or vacation; rather, it’s about vocation.

I often think about how life has become only earning for the sake of earning. People say you should get a job you like, which is fine if such jobs exist. The jobs I like are now considered beneath me. Not by me, but by those doing the hiring. Where has the sense of vocation gone? Back in the Middle Ages (and I’m not one to suggest that things were necessarily better then) the learned had opportunities. Those who had a skill could be inducted into a guild that would help to ensure job security. We’ve moved to a free agent model where someone can be removed from their natural vocation with nary a thought what they might do next. Detritus of a throw-away culture. For those with highly specialized skills—Ugaritic, anyone?—such severance is like setting one on an ice floe, only crueler. Ironically, the guild offers no help.

Reading about the Transcendentalists reminds me of how restorative the woods are. Emerson and Thoreau, heading off to the forest to commune with the divine. Since this road is blocked for me, I take the one better traveled, into Manhattan where, I’m sure, there is life. Elevators, ubiquitous pavement, quotas and tallies. Prove your worth. Among the students I knew I was accomplishing something. Since then it’s all just numbers. In the woods I don’t count the trees. I don’t demand to know what they’re producing for the good of the company. I don’t question their motives. Outside my window, if I had a window, I would see only stone, concrete, and steel. And inside all I feel are numbers. Can a soul be quantified? I think I would have to side with the Transcendentalists on this one. But that’s not what I’m paid to do.

Once and Future Ape

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

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

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

Dead See Scrolls

Despite her ability to overlook my obvious deficiencies, my wife has good eyesight. Last week she spotted an article carried by the Associated Press entitled “Dispute over ancient scrolls changes modern law.” Although many ancient documents (notably those from Ugarit) outweigh the importance of the Dead Sea Scrolls for understanding the religion of ancient Israel, the Scrolls have continued to be headliners. There never seems to be some sort of scandal very far from the Scrolls, and this article by Jennifer Pletz reaffirms that assessment. The name of Norman Golb is familiar to just about any Hebrew Bible scholar. His work on the Scrolls is highly regarded. The story, however, brings the scandal down a generation to Golb’s son Raphael, a lawyer and literature scholar. In a case whose details rival the minutiae of the Scrolls themselves, the younger Golb is accused of sending emails putatively said to have been sent from his father’s rivals confessing plagiarism. To what point, beyond alleged family honor, one hesitates to speculate.

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“Sculduggery,” J. C. L. Gibson once said, “is always just around the corner in archaeological circles.” The same might be said to apply to the Scrolls. Episode after episode of scholars behaving badly have attended the controversial documents since their accidental discovery on the eve of Israel becoming a state. Ironically, the Scrolls in some symbolic ways represent the struggles of the Israelis. No one doubts their importance, but access has always been an issue. Careers were made and secured by the Scrolls, reaching to the highest academic offices in the land. And yet, we can learn more by turning back the pages of history just a little further.

The Scrolls date from that troubled time period when Christianity was just beginning to emerge from Judaism. Tempers flare at implications masked or insinuated. As if the Scrolls were really the much sought philosopher’s stone. The original generation of Scroll readers is going the way of all nature. Those associated with the more solid tablets of Ugarit have long passed that way already. And yet we still have Bible museums being built and implications left dangling. Law suits are filed and ownership of the Scrolls is disputed. In the twenty-first century scholars are still willing to risk it all on some parchment fragments that have the appeal of the esoteric. Hidden truths, almost apocalyptic, squirreled away in desert caves. Knowledge is indeed money, unless, of course, you actually know how to read the Scrolls for yourself.

Unity in Diversity

UnitariansUniversalistsIn the Simpsons episode “Bart’s Girlfriend,” Jessica Lovejoy steals all the church’s money from the collection plate, leading Mrs. Lovejoy to call out, “Everyone turn around and look at this!” Grampa Simpson whips around saying, “What is it? A Unitarian?” And so the jokes go, back even to my seminary years. The Unitarians, however, are among the most intellectually honest of religions. I recently read David Robinson’s The Unitarians and the Universalists. Although the traditions approached their 1961 union from different angles, they had a common origin: concern over the Calvinism of colonial and early post-colonial New England. The majority religion of the northeast, various forms of Calvinism taught of utter depravity, human helplessness, and, that absolute affront to human intellect now being posited by some materialists: predestination (determinism, in secular terms). The Universalists couldn’t accept that a loving God would make anyone suffer forever. The Unitarians had trouble with several aspects of the theology, not the least of which was the Trinity (as a non-biblical concept). Early Unitarians based their beliefs on the Bible, which, as it turns out, does not support several Calvinistic concepts.

Like all religions, Unitarianism evolved over time. Eventually the unity of God became only one among many possibilities of what one might believe. In fact, doctrine was less important than ethics. It was a true Enlightenment religion. It allowed for the Transcendentalist movement that we all learned about in school, with Emerson wandering in the woods, and Thoreau never wanting to move out of them. They also had room for those who studied the Bible but expressed concerned that Jesus doesn’t really say that he’s God, although obviously some people interpreted it as if he had. Regardless of belief, meeting together was necessary, and eventually the Unitarian Universalist Association came to represent a widely liberal form of religion with Christian roots but rational sensibilities.

Among the marks of distinction of these groups is that, among Protestant denominations, they were among the first, if not the first, to ordain women. When you are less beholden to wooden tradition, all kinds of possibilities emerge. This book was kind of an epiphany for me. I’d been channeled into thinking that “orthodox” necessarily equalled “the good guys,” despite the treatment that I’ve repeatedly received at their hands. It sometimes takes a Gestalt phenomenon to see orthodoxy as not necessarily good. Perhaps the effort to preserve a tradition outdated by a couple of millennia costs far more than it saves. Perhaps we need to become more human, not less. I may not walk the forest with Emerson—he preferred to be alone anyway, from what I understand—but I’ll not be so quick to assume that tunnel vision is true vision either. Not in a world where the Simpsons can teach us as much as The Institutes.

Lobby Hobby

I can recall a time when hobbies seemed less than threatening. Indeed, the idea was to relax, not to lobby. My hobbies—collecting just about anything you could get without money—didn’t involve going to a store. Stamps (because everybody used them back then), coins (ditto), fossils from the local river bank, bottle caps that we collected while Mom was doing the wash at the laundromat, all kinds of handouts from society’s detritus made for many hours’ entertainment. I also collected Bibles. That was when I was old enough to earn some money and spend it on books. And I read those Bibles until I’d run out of versions, then I’d start over again. Now my hobby has come back to haunt me.

According to the New York Times, the Hobby Lobby family is planning to build a Bible Museum in Washington, DC, prompting fears of evangelization. Right there in the nation’s capital, not far from the Mall, a museum showing the importance of the Bible would indeed send a message. But is it really a threat? We live under the judicial decisions of a Supreme Court weighted towards the literal already. It might not hurt to have a museum dedicated to finding out what’s going through our justices’ minds. Clearly it’s not women’s rights. If we wander those proposed halls, we might see that museums are indeed dedicated to outdated stuff that has some importance. Rare are the contemporary museums that show right where we are at the moment. Rarer still, those that show the future that remains undecided. In many senses, Washington is already a museum.

The secular world seems to fear the Bible. It is, however, not going to go away. Although I left literalism decades ago, I’m still pleasantly surprised how much the Bible has to offer by way of insight into human nature and contemplation. You might even find some workable ethics if you can get away from the non-issues of birth control, stem cells, or same-sex marriage. The Bible doesn’t need to be a threatening book. In the wrong hands, it may at times seem like The Book of Eli had its eyes right on the target, but those who would use the Bible to harm others are those who read without understanding the words. No, I don’t think the Green family’s plans for such a museum are innocent. Neither can I believe that hobbies are a $3 billion industry. Reading books and picking up other people’s cast-offs may be the only hobbies you need.

Engraven images?

Engraven images?

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.

Secular Sacred

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

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

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

Forbidden Zones

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I grew up with talking apes. Well, I was actually about six when Planet of the Apes was released, but it quickly became one of my favorite movies. With a screenplay co-written by Rod Serling, and that very unorthodox conceit of evolution playing visibly on the surface, it was the forbidden fruit. Since, according to our fundamentalist doctrine 1) animals can’t speak, 2) evolution never occurred, and 3) the world was going to end long before 3978, we were not prevented from watching what was obviously fiction. And watch I did. There were spin-off cartoons, not to mention the following movie and television series. An unsuccessful reboot by Tim Burton was followed by Rupert Wyatt’s intelligent, if somewhat sentimental version. And I’ve seen them all. Finances being what they are, and, since my family does not share my enthusiasm for the apes, I’ll probably have to wait for the home-viewing release of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes to enjoy the latest offering.

In the meanwhile in a nearly glowing review in this week’s Time magazine, Richard Corliss has indeed whetted my appetite. The original series of Planet of the Apes movies had, like many films of the late sixties and early seventies, a strong, underlying social critique. Yes, one can see only so much of Charlton Heston’s bare chest, but there was something more going on here—something to which we needed to pay attention. The Burton version went for a parsimonious special effects extravaganza, but the storyline was devoid of much underlying reflection. Good ape, bad ape, all the way. Now, as we are moving into the third major incarnation of Pierre Boulle’s dark vision of our distant future, we see that the apes are maybe the real humans here. Maybe they were from the very beginning.

Perhaps because of its ability to slip beneath the Moral Majority radar in the guise of science fiction, the talking apes have been part of American culture for almost my entire life. The original movie introduced the idea of the Forbidden Zone, that region where the truth lay buried, waiting to be discovered. There was a not-so-subtle jab here at a world where politics was continually being revealed as just another human bid for power, and a Cold War was threatening our very existence. We survived and continued to evolve. Still, we find a kind of social catharsis in the apes, and I worry just a little bit at Corliss’s use of the word apocalypse. The apes have always been remarkably prescient. For some of us, they were more than mere entertainment. And so I’ll patiently wait until I can watch the apes alone in the privacy of my home, to learn what the future might hold.

The Tower

Photo credit: Daderot, Wikimedia Commons

Photo credit: Daderot, Wikimedia Commons

I’ve never been to Bowman’s Hill Tower. In truth, I’m not even sure what its significance might be. Beyond giving a spectacular view of the Delaware River valley, it is my understanding that it is a memorial built to George Washington and his many activities in this region. It’s not even that old. I have come, however, because of a memory not my own. Many decades ago, my mother visited the tower with her parents. She has pictures but couldn’t remember the name of the tower, or even where it was. As fate and happenstance have it, I live a mere hour away and I’ve undertaken this journey to a tower I’ve never seen to bring a sacred sense of place back to life for someone else. Too bad the park is closed today. It is a sunny Saturday in July, and it seems that everyone is outside. We drove across that impossibly narrow, rickety bridge between New Jersey and Pennsylvania at Washington’s Crossing (so named on both sides in both states) to find our way to this quiet park to find a lost past. “Closed” the sign laconically says.

The urge to travel, speaking strictly for me, is the pursuit of sacred space. Over Independence Day weekend we traveled to Boston not only to see fireworks, but to revisit a site of some personal significance. In my three years in that city life took me places I never imagined I might have gone. The memories, mine this time, although hazy, still permeate the air. Boston is a sacred city. Since childhood I have had dreams of Maine. From Boston I pushed further north to the rocky coasts and gray oceans of the stormy north Atlantic. Although neither God nor angel appeared, I knew that I had once again discovered the sacredness of space. Every time I leave, I count the days until I might return.

Many locations are sacred to a person. Some of mine are in the west, and some in the east. And when I’m there I require some time alone, for the sacredness of space is a deeply personal matter. When, many years ago, I was jostled into the Church of the Holy Sepulcher amid ecclesiastical robes too numerous to identify, I knew this was a holy spot for many. The very dust of Jerusalem seems sacred with age. But what had happened to me here? Beyond the endless readings and rereadings of the biblical tales, Jerusalem was someone else’s sacred location. Aside from the dark crusaders’ crypts, there was no place to be alone. I’ve never been to Bowman’s Hill Tower. Despite driving to Pennsylvania for that sole purpose, it is a place I have yet to see. And when I finally do climb that tower, it should, I hope become clear to me whether anything of the numinous remains in this dusty corner of somebody else’s memory. Sacred space is like that, and it keeps some of us forever on the move.

Equal Measure

Far off in the woods of Wisconsin sits a seminary. In these woods, I’m told, wolves eat little girls. That seminary has for decades distinguished itself by its stance against women priests. I knew of, and respectfully disagreed with this policy when I was hired to teach there in 1992. I didn’t make waves, but rollers have a way of finding you nevertheless. It doesn’t take much to capsize an unstable boat. Within my first year a student challenged me, “Did your life change forever on July 29, 1974?” I was unfamiliar with the code and asked what happened on that date, vaguely thinking perhaps it had something to do with the run-up to the Bicentennial. On that date, it turns out, Barbara Harris was ordained among the first female priests (the Philadelphia Eleven) in the Episcopal Church in the United States. I suppose my life should’ve changed—for the better—but I was a Methodist at the time. Perhaps my life changed then, for I was 12, but that change had little to do with what the student intended. Or maybe everything. I wouldn’t have had a problem with a woman priest in any case. In 1989, Harris was elected bishop, the first woman to hold that title in the Anglican communion. Just three years later I found myself in the lion’s den.

When I asked male students what their problem was with women priests the answer invariably pointed to three factors: Jesus had no women disciples (wrong, according to a certain sacred book they claim to have revered), the Roman Catholic church did not ordain women, and the Church of England did not ordain women. The problem with backing and filling is that filling always overtakes backing. By 1994 the Church of England was ordaining women. Yesterday, at long last, the General Synod approved of female bishops. Welcome to the twentieth century. Now only Rome stands in the way. I am confident, despite the certitude in the eyes of my Nashotah interlocutor, that Rome will eventually come around. I may not live to see it, but justice will be served.

Photo credit: ChrisO, Wiki Commons

Photo credit: ChrisO, Wiki Commons

There is good evidence that most religions, prior to the monotheistic triad, had women priests. Something about the singularity of deity seems to have contraindicated a protective mother in the psyche of male clergy. Ironically, the same day that the C of E decided to do what was right, Oxford University Press’s blog ran a post on Mormon women bloggers. Among the newest monotheistic faiths, like the traditions before it, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints has not recognized the sacerdotal role of women, leading some to be excommunicated for speaking out. We are told that God is a jealous god. This is, after all, the wilderness. After yesterday’s long-awaited decision the woods seem a little less dense, and the threat of the wolves may have been exaggerated all along. If religions would only see people as people all our lives might just change forever.

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.

Truth Fully

An article on science reporting on the BBC has me thinking about truth. Again. Truth is, of course, a philosophical concept. What it means is a matter of debate, and always has been. The way that it’s used, however, is reflected in the debate-oriented situation in the story. According to IFL Science’s Lisa Winter, the BBC has been tasked with tightening up its science programs to avoid the dilemma posed by the “two sides to every story approach.” While not denying that debate is the lifeblood of science, assessing the strength of the debate is essential. For example, there is a true scientific consensus about global warming. Those who deny it are generally backed by either corporate or religious causes that motivate them to claim the truth lies elsewhere. Truth is a very slippery term. And anybody can use it and claim it. In philosophy there’s no answer key in the back of the book.

Photo credit: Marretao22, Wikimedia Commons

Photo credit: Marretao22, Wikimedia Commons

Science, which I’ve admired from my earliest years, has a really, really strong track record of describing the physical universe accurately. Truly enormous paradigm shifts are rare in science and must be accompanied by stringent evidence. Sometimes critics grow frustrated at the slowness of science to accept something that seems obvious, but scientific thinking is nothing if not careful. Enter religion. The claims of most religions lay far beyond the reach of science. And yet, religion too has a really, really good track record—not of describing the physical universe (at which it often does abysmally poorly), but of providing meaning to human lives. Scientists have actually studied this. Religion, like it or not, does help. When it makes a claim on truth, however, a religion often comes into conflict with science. And the problem is that policies based on faulty scientific outlooks can have catastrophic consequences.

So what is truth? If we define it as what really, physically describes the material universe, science is onto it. In fact, science has the best chance of giving us an intellectually honest answer. If we define truth as what a certain deity declared law about a particular aspect of human life, science can’t help. Science doesn’t concern itself with gods or their putative decrees. Religion, however, does. And a vast part of the population votes for leadership based on religious beliefs rather than on scientific principles. And most have not taken too many classes in philosophy. In a democracy we both benefit and suffer under the weight of public opinion. And right now, it seems, public opinion considers philosophy as waste of time and would prefer the truth shrink-wrapped and ready for easy consumption.

Stratego

lossy-page1-428px-CLiff_being_undermined_by_the_Virgin_River._West_wall_of_Canyon_above_Temple_of_Sinawava._-_NARA_-_520458The idea is a simple one. When someone undermines, the very foundation of an idea is left with no foundation. We are taught not to undermine ourselves; for enemies it’s okay. Encouraged even. The Bible contains the seeds to its own undermining. The claim that it is a sacred book encourages—even demands—serious attention be paid to it. When it is examined closely, however, it becomes plain that the status accorded it as a book undermines its own claims. Believers can respond in several ways. One is to declare the Bible inerrant and to claim that contradictions are not contradictions and that what history has proven false is actually true. The keenest breed of such inerrantists hardly exists any more, since it does require a stable, geocentric view of the universe, if a universe there be at all. On the other extreme there are believers who make sacred writ so highly symbolic that we need not worry about the obvious factual errors—they were never meant literally anyway. And, of course, every position in between.

The Bible is not a unified composition. This was evident to the person, whoever it was, who first joined the Prophets to the Torah. Or even Genesis to Exodus. We have no way of knowing if s/he (mostly likely the latter) really believed that Moses wrote all the stories from the creation of the world through his own death, but the books of the Pentateuch roughly hang together in an extended narrative with plenty of instruction along the way. The “Bible” that Jesus knew had considerably fewer books than our “Old Testament.” And one gets the sense that Paul’s letters were tacked on in a catch-as-catch-can fashion, with everyone knowing (as the letters themselves say) that material is missing. And what Paul authoritatively wrote to the people of Galatia may not have been the same advice he sent to the Corinthians. Tides and times. Bibles and believers.

When scholars began, out of deep devotion, to look closely at the Bible the cracks in this historical facade began to fracture. Once the breach is in the dike, one dare ignore it only at great peril. The first shaft had been dug. By the time of Julius Wellhausen, the undermining was already engineered and well underway. And it couldn’t be stopped. Biblical scholars had choices to make: ignore the evidence and continue to sing the Lord’s song in a strange land, or climb out of that tunnel before it caves in. And the church, unsuspecting of what it means, insisted on an educated clergy. Serious study of the Bible shows what many believers wish it didn’t. And yet we continue to make claims based on evidence that is faulty. Just as long as these supporting pillars hold up we have nothing to worry about. And the undermining continues daily, lest we all find ourselves in the breadline.

Working Dead

AmericanZombieGothicPerhaps being born into and reared in a working class environment naturally predisposes me to the populist variety of entertainments. Although this may be true, serious scholars have begun to pay attention to the subjects traditionally classified as “lowbrow,” and particularly zombies. I mention zombies not infrequently because they are monsters with religious origins (although not the only ones). Reading Kyle William Bishop’s American Zombie Gothic (and who could resist such a title?) resurrected all of these interests for a few happy days on the bus. Subtitled The Rise and Fall (and Rise) of the Walking Dead in Popular Culture, Bishop’s study goes back to the beginning with zombies and their religious origins. Since the concept of zombie required the blending of Catholicism with its root African indigenous religions, it seems natural that the concept would emerge in Voudon (voodoo) religions of the Caribbean. What Bishop makes clear, however, is that the zombie is a way of coping with slavery, since, as originally conceived, zombies represent the horrors of enslavement. In other words, they represent a social justice issue.

Dismissed as puerile and unsophisticated, zombies had a difficult time catching on in American culture. Once they caught on, however, they didn’t let go. (They are zombies, after all.) As Bishop shows, this appeal has many bases. George Romero’s zombies were always social critique. Exploiting their shock value made a point, but other filmmakers soon followed, enamored of the potential violence, gore, and exploitation the zombies offered. Then, following 9/11, zombie movies proliferated, demonstrating that even the undead might perform some kind of catharsis. As Bishop notes, zombies were primarily a movie phenomenon, slow to catch on in literature.

Having read a few zombie novels in the last few months, I have pondered this last point deeply. What is believable, momentarily, on the big screen is rendered laughable with the ponderation of reading. When your brain has time to process what slick visual editing denies, it is clear that decaying corpses would have a pretty tough time getting around—even living bodies have trouble with it from time to time. Zombies, after all, are not really ever literal. They are signs, or even prophets. They point to a reality beyond themselves. Zombies, in reality, represent enslavement—whether literal or figurative—that holds us back from our true potential. No wonder they’ve become such fixtures in a world where opportunity has become effaced and terror can breach even secure borders. They may be lowbrow, but having lived the working class life, I have always had profound respect for the walking dead.