Tag Archives: 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.

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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.

Lost Supper

Culture, for better or worse, involves a deep connection to religion. No matter how secular we suppose the world to be, profound connections to belief surface in the most unlikely places. Time magazine’s culture section this past week has a brief blurb on “Burger Blunders.” Having been a vegetarian for a decade-and-a-half, this short story might not have caught my interest had my wife not pointed out “the Ghost,” a burger offered by Kuma’s Corner, a heavy-metal band-themed bar in Chicago. “The Ghost” comes with an unconsecrated communion wafer on top, and this has raised some spirits, according to Time’s culture team. Even Protestants recognize the power of the symbol of the wafer, even if they can’t accept transubstantiation. In Catholic belief, however, prior to consecration the sliver of bread is just that—a bit of pressed wheat product. The wafer came to be preferred because it was more easily contained than the crumbs of a regular piece of consecrated bread.

Communion, or the Eucharist, is a ritual meal based on the Jewish Passover. According to the Gospels, it was during the “last supper,” a Passover seder, that Jesus instituted the ritual. Early Christians ate together, and, recalling the symbolism, gave special prominence to the bread and wine. Bread, however, produces crumbs. When theology got ahold of bread it became a sacred object, after it was properly consecrated. It was believed (is still believed by some) to be very powerful in that state since it had become the actual body of Christ during the ritual. Wafers, technically unleavened bread, had many advantages to the emerging theological sensitivities. Portion control, symmetry, and virtually no crumbs. I’ve attended many masses, and the extreme care for particle control is everywhere from ciborium to patten to sacred linens that cover the altar like a liturgical table cloth. They are all accessories to the containment of broken bread.

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Communion wafers, however, when unconsecrated are just bread (if even that). They are not made palatable as snacks, but are more easily available online than basic gears or recordings of your favorite musical. Heavy metal has always enjoyed its blasphemous image as one of the most in-your-face counter-cultures possible. It is also profoundly religious. (Note, I am not saying that heavy metal is Christian or even Judeo-Christian, but it does participate deeply in religious symbolism.) If robbed of its shock-value, it is just loud noise. By association, however, many people mistake the wafer itself for what it represents. Without the added ingredient of consecrations, however, the liturgical churches tend to say it’s just bread. If you’ve ever eaten it, you’ll know that that assertion requires faith sufficient to move a Big Mac.

Darwinian Dawkins

Richard Dawkins seems like he’s probably a nice guy in person. You can tell quite a bit about somebody from their writing, and even when Dawkins is being abrasive in script, you can almost see a gleam in his eye. When I read The God Delusion, for example, I found myself nodding in agreement quite a bit. Not that I agree with everything he wrote; as an academic I can’t, in principle, agree with everything anyone writes. Nevertheless, Dawkins expresses himself with passion and clarity, if with a bit over overstatement. I was interested to read the interview with him in the 10 Questions section of this week’s Time magazine. When one is building a case, it is easy to pile on rhetoric, and pretty soon the force of an argument takes on its own life and sometimes a few casualties are left bleeding in the wake. Still, it is a good exercise to sharpen the mind.

Wikipedia Commons, photo credit: Mike Cornwell

Wikipedia Commons, photo credit: Mike Cornwell

The last of Time’s 10 questions deals with how Dawkins can be certain there is no God. Dawkins, in a conciliatory move, declares that there is much of which we can never be certain. Noting that future science will discover realities that we simply don’t foresee, he suggests, “it’s extremely unlikely that it would happen to home in on an idea from a Bronze Age tribe in the desert.” I found this final sentiment a touch off-kilter. We have plenty of scientific developments that have come out of the “Bronze Age tribes,” but God is not one of them. “Desert tribes” gave us metal smelting, bovine and caprid domestication, and, perhaps most importantly of all, writing. God, however, comes from a much earlier evolutionary strata. In fact, by the time that the Sumerians appeared, multiple gods were already in their train.

In fact, evolutionary scientists seem to indicate that our brains have contrived some need for God/gods. That God isn’t a semitic desert mirage, however, is attested by people all over the world developing the idea independently. Not only did the Israelites and their forebears have deities, so did the Vedic cultures that we now call Hinduism. So did the Native Americans, indigenous African religions, and those who developed in isolation on Australia. Gods evolved everywhere. It doesn’t take a scientist to figure out that this means that we have some need of them. I like what Richard Dawkins writes. I enjoy his candor and passion. We do, however, have to credit the desert tribes with much of the thinking that leads to science, but the gods, they are far more ancient than that.

Arduino Anything?

Before my daughter enrolled in college I’d never heard of an Arduino. Since her high school robotics team leadership has now passed into more able hands, I figured that I’d go back to my naive days of not thinking about automated mechanical devices, devoting my gray matter to grayer matters. Still, over the past several weeks robots keep seeking me out. A spread in Delta’s in-flight magazine for July featured robots, as did an alumni magazine for August. Now the issue of Time for September has a story about robots. When my daughter sent me the Arduino video, by TED, I knew I’d better try to pay attention. Technology will change us, whether we want it to or not. It seems that from the first knapping of flint our destiny was set to manipulating our world and making it into something we create. Robots make us gods.

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The real issue, however, in the TED video is that Arduino is open-source. Open-source means that the designs, instructions, and application of the device are voluntarily not held under copyright. Academics throughout the world are increasingly favoring open-source material—not just software and hardware, but the knowledge behind them. In my work at a for-profit (i.e. “commercial”) publisher, I know that open-source is a huge concern. It used to be that open-source, that is, free—information, was considered inferior. Like the early stages of recycled grocery bags. Arduino puts the lie to that supposition. An international team has made a device that is extremely flexible in application, and is giving it away. Many academic journals, traditional cash cows for the publishing industry, are now going open-source. Those of us who research and write don’t often do it for money—we just want our ideas shared. Commercial interests, however, are heavily vested in turning a profit from information. It is a clash of worldviews.

Never one of the great capitalists, I find open-source an intriguing concept. The problem is that those who think need to find a way to make a living in a society over-awed by spending. Universities charge tuition because professors have to be paid. Publishers charge a week’s wages for textbooks because editors have to be paid. Knowledge—the most valuable commodity people possess—fits uneasily with entrepreneurial ideals. This blog is open-source. Maybe that is why it has never garnered much attention, like a first-generation recycled paper bag. These same ideas, however, when presented in the context of university classrooms were subject to fees of thousands of dollars. Registration filled up every semester. The source is the same, a guy with a Ph.D. from a major research university making observations about how religion impacts each and every one of us, often in unexpected ways. Some things you can’t even give away. Well, if trends continue I shouldn’t be surprised if someday even this is taken over by a robot. Right, Mr. Čapek?

Dirty Laundry

Wirathu may not be a household name, although Time magazine devoted an article to his teachings last week. The media has become fascinated with religiously motivated violence of late, although such violence is nothing new. Capitalizing on the fact that many of us in the western hemisphere see Buddhism as a religion of peace, Hannah Beech’s article, “The Face of Buddhist Terror,” reveals the growing conflict between some Buddhists and Muslims in Myanmar. The article took me back to my seminary days where, in a class in systematic theology, our professor was extolling the virtues of Buddhism as a religion of peace as opposed to Christianity with its history of warfare. Not denying that history, I raised my hand and asked how Christians then had come to know Jesus as the Prince of Peace. And Muslims, as any student of religion learns, also value peace. The ideals of most religions promote peace. The problem is that the practitioners of religions are humans.

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Like our chimpanzee cousins, we humans distrust those of other tribes. In one of the more disturbing aspects of chimpanzee research, encounters between especially a male isolated from his troop and another family group often end badly. Biology has programmed us to keep valued resources for ourselves. It’s as if nature knows there are limits to her bounty, and in order to survive and thrive, some will need to starve. Or be killed. Critics of religion—and there are many who are quite vocal—often overlook the aspect of religions that call for the reversal of our natural tendencies. Yes, I’m selfish. As a biological creature, I’m concerned that I get enough to eat, and have sufficient space. I want to stockpile money so that I may retire (unlikely to happen in reality), and spend my final years in peace and relative comfort. Yet, my religious upbringing has left the door open for others. What about those with even less than me? My empathy reaches out for them. Don’t they deserve what I deserve?

The problem is always at the friction point where belief systems rub passed each other like immense tectonic plates. The Buddhists of Myanmar say they just want to be left alone. The Muslims of Myanmar say they just want to survive. Their religions are pressure points building along fault lines. Still, I suspect that there are other sources of tension and violence in Myanmar, besides religion. I know there are in American society. In fact, most everyday violence, I suspect, has nothing to do with religion. Violence is part of human nature. Religion, at its best, urges us to fight this compelling biological message of self-preservation at any cost. Religious violence is a very real cause for concern, but to get to the root of the problem we must look past religion to biology. And sometimes—just sometimes—religion turns off the flame beneath the simmering pot.

It’s All Gonna

When I first got married, I was distressed to learn that my wife was an organ donor. Still fresh from seminary, I had yet to outgrown the theological willies concerning earthly remains. Then she told me that she would prefer cremation to burial. My existential angst spiked. Scripture indicates a bodily resurrection, so what about those who are cremated? Obviously I hadn’t thought through the implications seriously. Even for those who are biblical literalists, all kinds of things have happened to Judeo-Christian bodies over the millennia. People have been eaten by wild beasts, fallen off boats, and been cremated without the benefit of being dead first. If the movies I’d watched growing up were to be believed, some might have even fallen into huge vats of acid like they have sitting around laboratories all over the mad scientist world. This week’s Time magazine has demonstrated, however, that my early angst was not a singular one.

In a story about the rise in popularity of cremation Josh Sanburn (with an ironically appropriate surname) addresses the religious objections head on. The reason America has been slow to adopt cremation has been largely religious. Apparently the factor that has turned up the heat on this motivation is financial. Let’s face it: money talks. Cremation costs much less than standard burial, and as much as I like a moody, whimsical cemetery, it just makes better sense. If you can get over the religious objections.

Resurrection has a powerful draw. Movies just wouldn’t be the same without it, whether it is a horror villain whose body disappears to come back in a sequel, or ET rising from his tomb to tell us all to be good. We want to keep it going forever. Life, that is. Funnily enough, resurrection is a miracle. A God who can raise the dead can surely reconstitute the parts, no matter how scattered or charred. Anyone who’s actually looked at a decayed body knows that bringing that thing to life would take a miracle, especially if other newly resurrected bodies want to hang out in the same room with it. As my critical faculties began to grow, I lost my fear of cremation. Maybe even having your ashes mixed with those of your spouse would be a very fitting symbol. Chances are, you won’t have much to say about it in any case. When I went back to the DMV to renew my license, after my wife talked some sense into me, I came out with an orange organ donor sticker affixed to the back. Perhaps life will go on, after all.

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Duck and Cover

Although it is the twenty-first century, I’ve never had cable television. From my youngest days watching muddy black-and-white that sometimes revolved in a dizzying array up and down the screen, I’ve always considered television as a basic, constitutional right. You shouldn’t have to pay for it. Not far from New York City, even before digital boxes were required, analogue signals were so weak and unreliable that I just gave up on television all together. Except when I stay in a hotel. After a day out doing whatever a family does when not at home, we’ll stumble into a hotel room and flip on the TV. I am amazed at home many uncouth, self-made individual reality shows are on. Last hotel stay, I watched a show about heavily bearded guys in the Yukon trying to catch some lampreys so the dogs wouldn’t starve that winter. When they were about to shoot a moose, I switched channels to watch a family of over-fed, heavily bearded bayou store owners making turtle soup and sipping it from the very shell of the martyred terrapin. Manhattan felt like a slap in the face Monday morning.

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All of this is preamble to the fact that I’ve never watched Duck Dynasty, a show featured in this week’s Time magazine. Another heavily bearded family (I’ve had a beard since 1988 and it hasn’t landed me a reality show yet; how about Unemployed PhDs in the Land of Prayer?), now rich off of making duck calls and a reality show, are apparently one of the highest rated programs on the binary airwaves. The article, by Belinda Luscombe, makes the point that the Robertson family is a born-again clan whose religion is almost as important to them as shooting ducks. She notes that patriarch Phil grew up in extremely humble circumstances, and that his faith in the Lord doesn’t waver. People across the country are fascinated. The ducks, I presume, are nervous.

I am fascinated by this national obsession with hard-time, simple folk. From Ice Road Truckers to Dirty Jobs (not done dirt cheap), this country of sitting-behind-a-desk-staring-at-a-numbing-computer-screen culture is hungry for the authentic. The lived existence of those who face difficult times and get out of them with homespun ingenuity. The duck hunters whistle all the way to the bank. I grew up in humble circumstances, and to my recollection it was anything but glamorous. I’ve never seen Duck Dynasty, but Luscombe’s article reveals the hidden demon in the room as Phil Robertson laments his children building bigger houses and moving away from the Sears and Roebuck-toilet paper ways of his youth. The internet doesn’t help you much when you’re in the outhouse and the last catalogue arrived a decade ago. I wonder what would happen if more of us led meaningful lives. Would we still need the television to remind us that out there, far from the urban centers that define our civilization, godly duck hunters haunt the swamps of Louisiana? Would we even need television at all?

Dog-gone Belief

A recent book I read, I can’t remember precisely which one, suggested that one reason the average citizen has trouble with science is the fault of evolution. We evolved, at least some of us have, to rely on common sense. We trust appearances to intimate reality, and act accordingly. The problem is that science, almost in principio, informs us that things do not operate according to common sense, but according to laws that are inscrutable to most of us and involving math way beyond our limited ability. Even with a calculator. For example, the earth is spinning really, really fast and hurtling around the sun so quickly that I think I’m going to be sick. Really? Common sense tells me that I’m stationary, and my inner ear only gives me true peace when that is the case. QED, as my high school pre-calc teacher used to say. But it’s not the truth. We are spinning and jetting through space.

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An article in Time magazine recently brought this disconnect home on a very poignant level. “The Mystery of Animal Grief,” by Jeffrey Kluger, explores the animal grieving process. Many species have been observed to react to the death of one of there own very much like humans do. Physical attitudes of bowed heads, actions that signal depression, and even rudimentary burials are all documented among animals. Some scientists disagree: reductionism declares that this is all appearance (like common sense), and if the professor on Gilligan’s Island taught us anything beyond building with coconuts and bamboo, it is that there is a rational explanation for everything. Animals grieving? It takes a human to do that. Well, actually, it takes a human to declare with such certainty that our animal cousins can’t feel like we do. Although our only current pet is a hermit crab—and perhaps many uninvited spiders—I grew up with dogs, cats, guinea pigs, and assorted other creatures. They express real affection. If they didn’t, I can’t think people would keep them.

I wondered, as I read Kluger’s article, when religion was going to come into the discussion. It wasn’t a long wait. Religion, he notes, is a human mechanism for coping with the finality of death. Dead is dead, after all. Animals can’t be religious, so they can’t experience the emotions we do. Or so science would mostly declare. I struggle with reality on a daily basis. My experience has taught me that things are not often what they seem, but sometimes my path lies in a direction diametrically opposed to that of Dr. Heisenberg. We are animals. Animals are part of our family. I’ve experienced people who show no emotion when their close associates are suffering. I’ve also experienced a dog that would cuddle up next to me and lick my face when I was sad, an encouraging look in his canine eyes. Animals are smart and empathetic. They have some understanding of death—it’s just common sense. I write this as I’m hurtling through space at 660,000 m.p.h. while spinning at a thousand miles an hour. If my reasoning seems suspect to you, consider the circumstances.

Near Earth Objects

Even before the Chelyabinsk meteor, Time magazine had committed to the printers with a story on asteroid 2012 DA14. From our terribly parochial viewpoint, such cosmic invaders are in our airspace (or at least in our satellite zone), as if we owned the very heavens above us. They are somehow an affront to our religious sensibilities. Many religions revolve around a celestial orientation. We all know that God is “up there” and the Devil is “down there.” What we’re discovering “up there,” however, is scarier than the Devil for many people. Space rocks are just part of the debris from the messy business of universe creating. Although space may be mostly empty (but dark matter has us reevaluating even that), it is far from tidy. Rocks rain down on us every day, and our user-friendly atmosphere that we’ve polluted so badly still begrudgingly incinerates those that enter at the wrong angle, brightening many a night with spectacular meteors. I’ve even seen some bright ones while driving in traffic in New Jersey. Wondrous indeed.

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Back in seventh grade I did a science report on comets. This was a fascination that led me to take astronomy in my Sputnik-era high school—complete with planetarium—and in my older, more conservative college—sans planetarium. Comets were, until fairly recent times, religious harbingers. The Time story even has a detail of Giotto’s Adoration of the Magi from the early fourteenth century, complete with Halley’s Comet hovering overhead as the ersatz Star of Bethlehem. In a pre-Copernican universe signs in the sky had to be divine. There was no other logical way to explain them. Of course, in science class I stuck to the facts. As a religious kid, however, I knew there was something more to it.

Our skies are not our own. The universe isn’t here for us. These scientific revelations are frightening on a religious scale. We haven’t quite gotten to the point where we’re ready to let go of the Heaven above that no telescope can see. We don’t even have any way to spot hunks of rock the size of Chelyabinsk’s unbidden visitor with any kind of accuracy. We don’t even know how many there are. Before the second Russian explosion, Time prophetically noted that about a million stones of a hundred feet or more are near our planet and that one 150-footer could be 180 times more powerful than the bomb dropped on Hiroshima. Our recent brush with God’s dropped stone was only about 30 times the size of the terrors unleashed on Japan. According to ABC a Father Dimitri of Chelyabinsk said, “This event happened the day of the big Orthodox holiday that means meeting with God and this has to make people think.” I know I’m thinking. I sure hope his aim is good.

Fall Silent

Some books impact an individual profoundly. Others are powerful enough to influence an entire society. Rachel Carson was the author of both. Tributes to the fifty year landmark of the publication of Silent Spring have appeared this month, and although the players have changed, the plot remains the same. Bryan Walsh’s tribute in Time a few weeks back captures the essence of the situation: an environmental danger is discovered, “industry” will at first deny it, then attack the science, and then try to frighten the population with the inevitable escalation of costs. Sometimes common sense wins, but only after a long tantrum by those whose main desire is personal enrichment.

Silent Spring is credited with starting the ecological movement. Until the early 1960s the world seemed vast enough to absorb our filthy, toxic run-off. We were only on the cusp of understanding that the world is much smaller than we had ever imagined. Disney had not yet published the theme song that would get through to the American imagination. We had yet to stand on the moon and look back at just how tiny our troubles were in an infinite universe. Using pseudo-religious backing, industries often claim the planet was made for us. In truth, we evolved to adapt to this planet. The sad story after sad story of those who’d figured out how to line their pockets at the expense of the health, and often the lives, of others constitutes an ignoble hall of shame. Rachel Carson, who truly deserves the title of prophet, was considered the enemy of progress. Better living through chemicals—who hasn’t heard the phrase?

The science behind DDT, which nearly drove the bald eagle to extinction, is not the culprit. The radium that rotted the teeth, mouths, and jaws of young women employed to paint it on watch hands, had always been radioactive. The coal still burning under Centralia suffers from properties properly discovered by science. In case after case we find greed running away with the science. Science unlocks the secrets of our universe, but it also gives ideas to those who are always looking to make a buck. It may be that Rachel Carson knew she was slinging stones at giants when Silent Spring was published. This one biblical metaphor might come in useful for those who are able to see the larger picture. We’ve only got one planet and if we want it to survive we’ve got to make it last. Giants should come to fear the disadvantaged who know how to use slings, whether with rocks or words.