Tag Archives: Time

Clockwork Universe

longitudeIn a clockwork universe, time is an essential interpretive factor. Those of us constantly crushed for time hardly realize just how recent of an invention it is. Time has, of course, been around forever. Human interaction with it, in the daily sense of what defines work and what defines leisure, dates only to modernity. Train schedules, in the Victorian Era, led to the need for standardized time across large land masses such as North America. Prior to that, with an uncanny precision to those of us who infrequently take the time even to look at the sky, clocks across the nation were set at noon by observing the sun at its zenith. Even though the concept of longitude existed, its measurement at sea was maddeningly difficult. The Phoenicians, the ancient mariners who circumnavigated Africa, did so by staying in sight of land as much as possible. The open ocean gives few clues as to those imaginary lines we assign to keep our location certain.

Dava Sobel’s Longitude: The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time, is, despite the lengthy title, a brief book laying out the story of John Harrison. Harrison, a clock-maker whose precision clocks made the calculation of longitude a much more precise science, was in a race for a royal grant to reward the discoverer of a method for giving precision to ships at sea. Harrison represented those who believed accurate clocks could solve the problem, while others argued that mapping the heavens would give sailors the best chance. Often we forget that loss of life greater than that on the Titanic could occur when ships ran aground, due to lack of knowledge concerning their longitude. Navigating the seas before GPS and before accurate watches, was often a matter of informed guessing with very high stakes. Harrison never did get to claim fully what he’d earned and we’ve all but forgotten how difficult finding the correct time was when our computers remind us, to the second, of precisely when we are.

Prior to science, the keeping of time was a religious function. Sacred calendars marked holidays—often with the ulterior motive of keeping farmers on track for when planting time for various crops, and their harvests, should commence. Telling the change of seasons by when to add or discard a layer of clothing seems eminently practical, but it doesn’t help an agricultural society to plan ahead adequately. The gods would give the time, and all they would require was a cut of the profits. It was, all things considered, a reasonable trade-off. And now holidays have mostly slipped their religious moorings to become times when we simply don’t have to go to work. Speaking of which—look at the time…

Jesus of Hollywood

What hath Hollywood to do with Boston? Not enough, apparently. In this week’s Time magazine, an article entitled “Films Are His Flock” by Josh Sanburn revisits the ark. Actually, it throws the doors open a little wider—it looks at Hollywood’s effort to woo the religious. Ironically, although universities all across the country offer courses in religion in popular culture and the Bible in popular media, they are constantly trying to rid themselves of the detritus known as biblical scholars. High brow is in, while Hollywood makes no secret of its love to the common people. For Americans the common person is religious, or at least doesn’t block out religion like the educated crowd does. And they come with pockets lined. Religious movies, if marketed well, can be phenomenal successes. In my four years teaching at a secular state university, my Bible classes were filled to capacity each semester. Still, Rutgers coyly refused to hire me full-time. “There’s no interest,” they seemed to say. “Nobody reads the Bible.”

Meanwhile, according to the article, Jonathan Bock, founder of Grace Hill Media, a marketing firm that sells the Bible to Hollywood, knows a good thing when he sees it. Noah is about to come splashing into theaters. Son of God has already incarnated. Exodus is yet to come. And those are only the movies that are explicitly religious. I had no trouble pointing out to my long-suffering January term classes that religion plays a role in many movies, most of them explicitly secular. Those in Hollywood know that religious themes—the Bible even—resonate with the general public. Having grown up in, or maybe even below, John Q. Public, I have always known that the Bible makes good movies. Doubt it? Ask E.T. As he appeared risen, ascended, and glorified, the stranger from above wearing a white shroud and backlit with a nimbus, many of us squirmed in our seats for we had seen a clever representation of our Lord.

Perhaps it is resistance to the McCarthyism of the 1950s that so many intellectuals associate with religion, but academics just can’t seem to understand that this is important. The Bible business is a multi-million dollar industry, and yet, universities would prefer to ignore the implications. Meanwhile in Hollywood, they’re trying to make sure they get the blend just right. Theatrics and theology. You’ve got to be careful whom you choose to offend. The Last Temptation of Christ, based on a novel written by a devout Nikos Kazantzakis, just didn’t perform as a Scorsese movie. It is the job of people like Jonathan Bock to figure out why. And it isn’t hard to see that it’s a buyers market on America’s left coast. Indeed, without a hint of cynicism the Bible will bring in a flood. But that’s just academic. Or it should be.

Noah looks down over Times Square

Noah looks down over Times Square

10 More Questions

10QuestionsI don’t watch television. This is not some moralizing, high-brow stance—it’s just the fact that it isn’t cost-effective with the little time I have for the tube. Growing up, however, television was at times my best friend. I see we’ve grown apart over the years. Who’s to blame? In this week’s Time magazine, the 10 Questions are directed to Mark Burnett, whom, prior to reading them, I couldn’t have identified with my TV Guide atop a Bible. Burnett is the mind behind the movie Son of God, originally a History Channel television show that managed to beat out even Game of Thrones. The laconic remarks left to Burnett reveal a man somewhat cagey about religion, but with a sense of mission nonetheless. What had never occurred to me is that even evangelists have corporate sponsors. According to Belinda Luscombe, Burnett said, “Do you remember what it was that launched Billy Graham? It was William Randolph Hearst. And Hearst Corporation put the first initial money into The Bible series and Son of God.” The first money into the son of God, Billy Graham, and the Bible. Who can match such a pedigree?

The public airing of faith lacks something without big money. The Crystal Cathedral, Lakewood Church, Heritage USA. Where would we be without the media moguls to lead us? There’s gold in them thar hills. All it takes is those willing to ask the gullible to mine it. Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also, n’est-ce pas? Seems like the Son of God raced past the Lego Movie on its opening weekend, but fell behind Non-Stop, although he’s still gaining. This is the sign of true divinity. Who will ultimately win? Does anybody have an ark?

Crystal Cathedral Ministries went bankrupt in 2010 and sold the Cathedral to the Catholics. Heritage USA lost a slug-out with Hurricane Hugo, as Jim Bakker was checking into a cell with Lyndon LaRouche. Can even the Son of God rock the critics with such a record? Mark Burnett is also credited with helping to create reality television. As we watch the rise and decline of the Duck empire, and the tearful admissions of personal failings from evangelists so rich that we have to admit a funny thing happened on the way to the Compaq Center, can there be any doubt where reality really lies? Who can really tell the difference between The Bible and The Game of Thrones?

A Girl Named Cthulhu

It was only a 25-word blurb in last week’s Time magazine. A Canadian couple decided to let the internet community name their daughter. As of the time of writing the third most popular suggestion was Cthulhu. WWLD? The internet has brought Lovecraft’s sleeping deity to life. Ironically this evil, belligerent, and fearsome god tends to have more fans than some of the more loving, cuddling varieties of deity around which western culture arose. Children are a parent’s ultimate investment (or should be) and the name we bestow will influence their view of life. I still recall the scandal of when I first showed my Mom a baseball card where the player was named Jesus (Spanish pronunciation, please!). I innocently asked if that was allowed since we’d been taught that although other biblical figures were fair game, the name of God was a retired number. There was only one Jesus, and this baseball card a monument to sinful arrogance.

Cthulhu

Of course, we lacked the biblical training to know that Jesus is only the Greek form of Joshua, a name of fair game to any young lad. Naming after a deity was otherwise verboten. Of course, that has all changed now. Names are up for grabs, and it is getting harder to find unique ones. H. P. Lovecraft, who died in relative obscurity, could find publication only in pulp fiction magazines—the lowbrow literature of his day. The divine fruit of his fertile imagination has now taken on the dimensions of true divinity. How many potential names are out there on the internet? Lovecraft alone gave us many gods. All the Dianas, Thors, Carmans and Dylans out there are in good company. Why not name a child after a god?

Names do effect a child’s view of life. Growing up in a biblically literate family, I often thought of the Stephen of the New Testament. The first Christian martyr, he died with a vision of heaven in his eyes, earning the meaning of his name, “crowned.” I aspired to live a selfless life, in as far as such a thing was possible in the twentieth century. It was my name—it was my destiny. There are no other “Steves” in my family, and when I was old enough to comprehend that many children bear family names, I asked my Mom whence mine had come. It turns out that I was named not after a family member or even a saint, but after a cartoon character. Touché, Cthulhu! Long may those of us with unorthodox namesakes stick together. The world is our myth.

Shadowy Futures

A thoughtful, if prescient commentary by Andy Crouch in this week’s Time magazine takes us into the uncanny valley. Despite the boastful protestations of the materialists, most people are not very brave at facing death. With the passing of Ariel Sharon and the sad story of Jahi McMath, the question of keeping the practically dead practically alive takes on a particular poignancy. It’s not that the dying are the ones protesting, but it is the living. We rage against the dying of the light, and, as Crouch notes, it is often the most religious that protest the loudest. Religion, ironically, is the framework that many use to cope with the ultimate inevitability. Death is scary. That’s why so many pray and others watch so many horror movies. We have trouble finding uncannier valleys than that of Crouch’s shadow of death.

Religion, in addition to putatively renouncing the fear of death, has often introduced the denial of life’s goods along the way. What ascetic would not have truly welcomed death? A starving belly day after day and crushing loneliness in the most barren environments earth has to offer should change one’s perspective. Not all of us have such heroics, however, hardwired into us. We may see the illogic of a religion that states death is release into a better world while creating even greater terrors of the other side of that veil. We dance between the horns of a dilemma where neither side will really sustain our weight. As Crouch notes, what we truly want is the assurance that somebody loves us at the end.

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The materialist simply falls asleep for one last time. The faithful prepare to pass through a portal through which nobody has reliably come the other way. It is the ultimate test of faith. In the nineteenth century, when the death of a loved one at home was a common occurrence, an acceptance, perhaps morbid, pervaded the era. Who can think of Victorians without pondering the grave? Technology has cheated death both in small ways and in large. We are grateful for the salvation from small issues that once meant almost certain premature death, but we are scratching at the biggest door of all—immortality—begging to be let in. Will that head in a jar really be me? I have an uncanny feeling about that. Religion, for all its problems, should help us through this valley, if we really believe.

Pope of Deliverance

TimePopeIt’s the Time of year. The time of year Time chooses a person of the year. Not for the first time in recent memory, a religious figure has been chosen. Granted, Time declares the person of the year is the most newsworthy, not necessarily the best to emulate morally. Notorious scoundrels have made their way onto one of the nation’s top news magazine’s covers, while many more worthy will never be selected because they just don’t garner the notice. Despite this, Pope Francis is certainly the most deserving pontiff in living memory. Over this year he has demonstrated that the Catholic Church does have some historical memory of its original call and mission to the Christian faith.

Ossification is a natural tendency with institutions. We tend to think the earliest universities are still the best (in some cases that may be true), while in fact better educations are often found elsewhere. We want to believe that as it was in the beginning, is now, and do I really have to finish it? Times change, institutions evolve. Within half a millennium the Christian movement went from a bunch of persecuted, fearful peasants hiding in corners to the power brokers of a powerful empire. Problem is, once you’ve tasted empire, there’s no going back. Until now. How odd it is to see a person who could live a life of opulent self-service giving it up to be kind to his fellow humans. It is almost as if the Vicar of Christ has somehow become incarnate. A pope who is one of us. And the world stares in wonder.

I don’t mean to pick on the Catholics here. We see it in many religions. Someone humble and spiritual joins a religious movement for obvious reasons. They then grow through the ranks, acquiring a craving for power. What a temptation it must be to stand before an audience of thousands, knowing that by television hundreds of thousands more are watching you—hanging on your every word. Our underlings tell us we are great and it isn’t so hard to believe them. The man who steps down from his kingly throne to mingle with the laity, who doesn’t ride bulletproof cars to represent a man who willingly, so the story goes, gave himself up to die. What saddens me is that this is newsworthy. Not to detract from the spirit Francis has injected into a stony Vatican, but that we find it incredible is a comment on what has come to pass for religion in this time. Thanks, Time, for holding up this important mirror to our society.

Sacred Fear

Last week’s Time magazine ran a story about fear. I’m no stranger to this emotion, so long ago I decided to engage it creatively rather than run away. The article, “Monsters Inc., Inside the weird word of professional haunting,” by Lily Rothman, contains the laments of those who operate seasonal haunted houses. People are just getting too hard to scare. Some blame violence in the media and computer games, a large-scale desensitization to the suffering people might cause to others. CGI has made the most hellish nightmare realistic in the theater or on the small screen. If you can imagine it, it can be brought to life. Yesterday was Halloween, the day we’re allowed to be afraid. Of course, those who fear the influence of negative emotions on children have cute-ified the frights: bulbous air-filled creatures lit up from within billow harmlessly in front lawns, monsters of various sorts sport silly grins, and humor is liberally sprinkled in with the horror. One haunted house owner wanted patrons to walk through naked, so they could feel vulnerable. Today most people will wake up to just another day of work, while others will roll out of bed ready for All Saints’ Day and a rousing chorus of Vaughn Williams. Some of us will still be scared.

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Thrice I’ve had to face the highly secretive severance agreement offered by employers who know that people over forty have a difficult time rebuilding a career. I know that in this I’m not alone. If it hasn’t happened to you, here’s how it goes: you show up to work one day and begin doing whatever it is someone pays you to do. Depending on the size of the organization, either Human Resources or some level of supervisor will innocently invite you to the office. They will have solemn smiles on their faces. The door will be closed. You will be told that, for whatever reason they wish to give, your services are no longer required. In return for your silence you’ll be offered some kind of adult care package. You’ll leave shattered and stunned and willing to sign anything slipped under your nose.

The secrecy’s the thing. I’ve never revealed to anyone, under pain of prosecution, what any of those agreements said. What I have noticed, however, is the fear. The lawyer-instilled fear of bad press. Organizations want to be thought of as caring and concerned. They do not want any clandestine information released. Truth seems to be the greatest engine of fear in the corporate world. A few years back, before the Bush-whacking of the economy, I read about optimistic companies practicing “naked business.” Revealing vulnerability. I immediately admired the idea. Like walking through a haunted house in the nude, businesses could demonstrate that they have nothing to hide. But there’s real fear here. Like a ghost, truth can pass through walls. Like Godzilla, truth is indestructible. Like the invisible man, naked truth just can’t be seen.