In 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…
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
Posted in Bible, Civil Religion, Current Events, Higher Education, Movies, Popular Culture, Posts
Tagged E.T., Films Are His Flock, Grace Hill Media, Hollywood, Jonathan Bock, Josh Sanburn, Nikos Kazantzakis, Noah, Rutgers University, The Last Temptation of Christ, Time
I 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?
Posted in Bible, Civil Religion, Current Events, Movies, Popular Culture, Posts
Tagged 10 Questions, Belinda Luscombe, Crystal Cathedral, Game of Thrones, Heritage USA, Lakewood Church, Lego Movie, Mark Burnett, Non-Stop, Son of God, Time
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.
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.
Posted in Bible, Current Events, Deities, Literature, Memoirs, Popular Culture, Posts
Tagged Cthulhu, H P Lovecraft, Internet, Jesus, Joshua, Stephen, Time
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.
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.
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
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.
Posted in Current Events, Deities, Evolution, Mesopotamia, Posts, Religious Origins, Science
Tagged Bronze Age, Hinduism, Richard Dawkins, Sumer, The God Delusion, Time
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.
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.
Posted in Animals, Consciousness, Evolution, Posts, Religious Origins, Science
Tagged common sense, death, Evolution, Gilligan's Island, Jeffry Kluger, reductionism, The Mystery of Animal Grief, Time
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.
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.
Posted in Astronomy, Current Events, Natural Disasters, Posts, Science
Tagged Adoration of the Magi, Asteroid 2012 DA14, Chelyabinsk meteor, comets, Giotto, Halley's Comet, Heaven, Hiroshima, Time