Tag Archives: Wisconsin

Hotel Nowhere

HotelCalifornia1977. I was in junior high school and I wore my hair long. I hadn’t yet donned the cross that I carried through my high school years with a constant fear of Hell on my back, but I did listen to the radio. The haunting song “Hotel California,” by the Eagles, scared me. There was something lurking there—something undefined and yet compelling. Cults were in the news, and after the People’s Temple suicide a year later, we were all pretty well convinced that the song was based on fact of some sort. Religious analysts concluded that the song referred to everything from the Antichrist (“they just can’t kill the beast”) to a New Religious Movement that had taken over a western mission (“we haven’t had that spirit here since 1969”). Members of the Eagles, when asked, said their intentions were to expose the darkness of the music industry as idealistic hippies came of age and realized, yes, it’s just business. Still, I shivered.

Nashotah House used to be on the frontier. Although it is only 30 miles from Milwaukee, it could still feel terribly isolated less than two decades after the Eagles had flown. Indeed, there were sotto voce suggestions that “Hotel California” should be the official seminary hymn. “You can check out any time you like, but you can never leave.” The nights could be very dark in the Wisconsin woods, and for those attuned to some of the more honest aspects of a religion based on exclusion this didn’t seem too far to stretch. “Hotel California” came forcefully back to mind reading about Oneiric Hotel in Wired. (Mentioning Wired makes me look smart.) The Oneiric Hotel is a lucid-dreaming device by artist Julijonas Urbonas, the kind of thing Wired finds newsworthy. The story mentions that Urbonas’s previous project—called Euthanasia Coaster—was designed to kill its passengers.

Now my mind checks into Bates Motel. I know Psycho is set in Arizona, but the desert southwest is terra incognita to an easterner, and besides, it’s just a metaphor. It looks like California to me. I saw Psycho as a college student, and was rather afraid to watch it while at Nashotah House. Indeed, the night I moved to campus I found a dog-eared script from a play about a murderous maid at the seminary left on my coffee table. “This could be Heaven or this could be Hell.” Psycho, it is asserted, was based on the macabre case of sociopathic killer Ed Gein who had roamed these self-same woods of Wisconsin, and who had died less than a decade earlier just down the road in Madison. There was, I knew, a psychiatric hospital just across the small lake that the campus bordered. We don’t call them cults anymore, but we all know what we’re talking about. There are indeed places that you can never check out, even if you leave.

Irrational Reform State

Since 1954, after the cut-off date for new religions (see yesterday’s post), American children have been making a pledge to an inanimate object with the words, “under God.” Despite the fact that all parents know that children take liberties, the reality is that conformity is deeply embedded in young people. Totalitarian states everywhere have recognized that indoctrinated children are difficult to deprogram. In the chilly heart of the great panic known as the Cold War, the pledge of allegiance was emended to declare America a nation under God. And the American Humanist Association is backing a New Jersey family in suing to have a castrated pledge on offer. I always felt swearing fealty to a flag was a decidedly pagan activity anyway. Did not Jesus say, “let your communication be, Yea, yea; Nay, nay: for whatsoever is more than these cometh of evil”? Good Christians aren’t supposed to swear. In a land where the IRS controls what counts as a religion, we might consider substituting “under capitalism.” Isn’t that what we really mean anyway?

Nobody has control over where s/he is born. I’m not sure that many people would want to have the burden of making that decision. Still, we have to learn to adjust. Religion is a matter of where you’re born. We may grow to believe, but what we believe depends on what our guardians teach us. In my case, being born into a Fundamentalist family in Pennsylvania led me to nearly a decade-and-a-half teaching stint in an Episcopal seminary in Wisconsin. Who knew? My religion also taught me that swearing—i.e., “pledging” allegiance—was vaguely suspect. I was never discouraged from the pledge of allegiance, however. After all, it said “under God.”

When my daughter was very young, we were in a store in Wisconsin (where she did not choose to be born) when a couple of guys, being guys, let a few choice adjectives slip. One of them looked over, saw us there (my daughter too young to comprehend what was said), and said, “Oh, sorry! I didn’t see her there.” I found his chivalry admirable, but misplaced. We hear what we hear. So I’ve always found it odd when people want to sue if their children are forced to hear the words, “under God.” How does that threaten an atheist’s home teaching any more than swearing to a piece of cloth undermines a Fundamentalist’s? And aren’t we all taught that globalization is the way of the future? Under those multitude of young hands beat the hearts of Jews, Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, Sikhs, Jains, Atheists, and any number of other faiths. We’re told the Cold War is over. Maybe the government should consider turning down the thermostat.

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Pair of Docs

I’m not planning any trips anytime soon, but if I were I’d give Pair of Docs Travel a look. The founders of Pair of Docs are friends of mine who’ve also landed in that black hole of academia: hired, established, dismissed, forgotten. In my days at Nashotah House, eager to escape, I talked to Nelia Beth and Joel about an adjunct teaching stint at Carroll College (now Carroll University) in Waukesha, Wisconsin. They arranged for a couple of classes for me, and even wished me luck as they knew they were being forced out. Not for performance or lack of competence, but because of politics. Shortly after their moorings were thwarted, I too was cast off without an anchor. I’ve been adrift ever since. Last week, however, I had a letter from my old colleagues letting me know that they’ve gone into the travel agent business. Give them a chance—I’m sure you’ll be pleased.

An unspoken moral dimension is at work in higher education. Actually, the dimension is immoral. Those who embark on the track of higher education are culled from their teenage years by their teachers and professors. Having taught quite a long time myself, I know that a promising student stands out like a glowing rock in the sand. You know that this person is sharp enough to go far. You encourage, you advise, you try to open doors. The doctorate is awarded and before the silly academic hood touches those untried shoulders, you’ve just created another beggar to line the streets. A tin cup might be a better emblem of higher education than a diploma. At least it’s more useful.

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Universities keep cranking out Ph.D.s because they need the money graduate students bring to the programs. The graduate students, for the last two decades at least, have been the sacrificial victims. I have to wonder about the future of a society that takes those deemed most able by their many teachers and demoralizes them to the point of endless depression and penury. In some cultures teachers are treated like the high-achievers that they actually are. The future rests with them, not entrepreneurs. Not that you would be able to tell the difference from our sluggish economy. Seems to me that maybe we don’t have enough slaves to row this galley. And if you’re wanting to book a place on a ship or plane, maybe it would be considered a form of social justice to give Pair of Docs a try. If I could afford to travel, I know I would.

Jesus, My Foot

A story going around the internet features pictures of Paula Osuna’s bruised second toe. According to the YouTube story, Osuna fell down the stairs then had her boyfriend rub some sacred dirt from the shrine of El Santuario de Chimayó in New Mexico over the injury. As part of the healing process, an icon of Jesus appeared on her injured toe. Now, New Mexico has a reputation for hiding some potent sites of paranormal import (at least 51 of them), but I had never heard of Chimayó before. It is apparently one of the most visited shrines in the country. Like Holy Hill, a local shrine I used to visit once in a while back in Wisconsin, the site itself is supposed to lead to healing. Healing sites sometimes hold their own irony.

When we lived in Wisconsin, my family used to be avid geocachers. We still go out once in a while to find the little boxes hidden in the woods, but in Wisconsin there were plenty of day trips to be had with minimal traffic (unlike our current setting). One day we drove to Holy Hill National Shrine of Mary, Help of Christians, a discalced Carmelite community built atop a glacial moraine that gives spectacular views of the southeastern corner of the state. Inside there were many abandoned crutches, as I knew from previous visits, but this time we were present to find a small ammo box filled with trinkets, hidden in the wooded grounds. As our GPS narrowed us in on the coordinates, I made the typical error of watching my device rather than my feet. I slipped on a pile of rocks and my left hand slid onto a broken beer bottle, slicing open my little finger. Fortunately our geocaching bag held a small first aid kit, but no amount of gauze and holding my hand over my head could stop the bleeding. After we’d logged our find, we drove to a local emergency room where I received about ten stitches. Although the injury took place on the grounds of a healing shrine, no Jesus appeared on my shredded pinkie. Nor did miraculous healing come because of the location.

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Pareidolia is a most fascinating evolutionary development. One of the first things imprinted on a newborn person is the image of a human face. In remarkably short time the infant can register the intent of various expressions on a human face and will soon learn to mirror them. That desire to find a friendly face never leaves us. We see faces everywhere. There are entire websites dedicated to pareidolia. We like to think there is a watchful parent ensuring that we won’t stumble and fall. Life, however, is full of accidents and injuries. Some of them are even the results of visiting healing shrines. Belief is what makes the difference. Ironically, even when Osuna’s bruise lost the shape of Jesus, she still believed in the healing power of the dirt. Her story has been covered on television and is easily found on the web. It is a fame born of faith. Miracles are always there for the taking.

Not Knowing

WhatIDontKnowAboutAnimalsBegin with a basic premise: we cannot know what a creature without language thinks. Add in the thoughtful anxieties of a post-domestic writer who knows about animals and you have What I Don’t Know About Animals, by Jenny Diski. Part biography, part science, part philosophy, wholly human. I knew from the day the book was released that I would read it since, like the author, I am one haunted by the relationship between the exploited and the exploiter. Diski’s confessions are difficult to read at times, veiling herself, as she does behind the curtains of one’s most private experiences, but she reveals plenty to those who read on. We can’t know for certain what another person thinks, so how can we know what a sentient animal thinks? Some, following Descartes and Skinner, would declare that animals don’t think, they simply do as programmed. The rest of us know that they are wrong. The evidence accumulates more each year that animals think and feel, but, as Diski repeatedly points out, we need to drive with the brakes on. We can’t get inside them to actually know if human experience corresponds at all with animal experience. We’ve shared the planet for millions of years, but we’ve lost track of our common origins.

As I suspected, the Bible came into the discussion. The book of Genesis lurks in the background of most human-animal rationalizations. The divine division into separate “kinds” must be kept discrete at all times. The problem is, nature won’t always play along with that game. One type slowly morphs into another and some biologists are even questioning the usefulness of “species” at all. Fear of bestiality, as Diski points out, is found already in the Bible. Best to keep everything in its proper pigeon-hole, whether that’s where it belongs or not. Genesis gives us the right to exploit, and so we continue to use animals for our own purposes. Although the feline, it turns out, may have figured out how to set this order on its head. In some cases.

What I Don’t Know About Animals is not a defense of vegetarianism or of radical, thoughtless abandon. Diski writing on spiders will cause many heads to nod in agreement, and her rage against the loss of the common lady-bug struck an amazingly responsive chord with this reader. The lady-bug’s demise came at human tampering, importing asian beetles as pest control—beetles that eventually edged out the harmless lady-bug, replacing the Volkswagen of beetles with a biting, omnivorous, massing pest. In Wisconsin the southern side of our faculty house was literally blanketed with them in the spring. Diski uses the same word I did then: biblical. Swarms seem to be the way that the Almighty has of telling us too much of even a good thing will go bad. Although I couldn’t agree with every statement Diski makes, I have the feeling this is a book I will reread more than once. Wisdom often comes in the form of admitting just how little we know.

What’s a Sukkot?

It’s not every day you see a lulav and etrog, even in Manhattan. You can tell life’s too busy when you miss that it’s sukkot. Not that I’m Jewish, but I have been invited to sukkot a time or two by a friend, and it was always a fun, relaxed occasion. A festive little booth in the back yard, sweet wine and cookies. Running the rat race in New York City it is sometimes easy to forget. On my hurried footrace to some place or another, I noticed a group of Orthodox Jews standing along East 42nd Street with lulav and etrogs in hand. So distracted was I that I only vaguely wondered, “why are they holding those at this time of year?” Several blocks later, entering the Port Authority Bus Terminal I saw a man just standing as the crowds parted around him like the Red Sea. In his hands lulav and etrog. Finally it dawned on me: sukkot. It is fall, the time of year when I used to be able to enjoy the bounty of nature and the good-natured holidays. A time before when.

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The Hebrew Bible prescribes a set of three pilgrimage holidays: sukkot, shavuot (pentecost to the Greek, or Christian), and passover. Of the three, all associated with the exodus from Egypt in some traditional way, sukkot is the most lighthearted. The command to live in booths is said to be a reminder of the dwelling in tents during the wilderness wandering. Anthropologically speaking, it probably goes back to an ancient tradition of living in huts during the harvest when you don’t always have time to go home and tuck yourself comfortably in every night. Combines hadn’t been invented, and harvesters had to work long hours to ensure that the crop was gathered in. Eventually it became a celebratory occasion. Nice of Moses to allow a bit of festivity here.

Back while at a certain seminary in Wisconsin, a local Jewish friend used to invite my Hebrew Bible class to sukkot. Numbers were small, and invariably wary—were they going to be proselytized by the other? No, but they were invited to shake the lulav and etrog, sip a little wine, and chat about Leonard Cohen. A bit of a cultural exchange in the midst of prolonged indoctrination. I often wonder if my friend continued the tradition after I was asked to leave. The Christian school never made any reciprocal invitations, of course. Ecumenism is often a one-way street. So I stopped a moment at smiled at the stranger in the bus station, solemnly holding lulav and etrog aloft. Life is a bit too busy when we can’t even take a moment to consider all the things we take for granted every day.

Personal Dogma

Dogma is a movie that many seminarians discover at some point in their theological education. Smart, funny, and irreverently reverent, the film follows the exploits of a couple of misled angels trying to get back into Heaven and thereby negating all of existence. It is no surprise, given Kevin Smith’s origin myth, that the film opens and closes in New Jersey, but I often ponder the strange coincidence of places in the movie to places I’ve lived since my own seminary career began (and ended, rather like the massacre scene in Red Bank before God cleaned it all up). Nashotah House, where I discovered Dogma, is in Wisconsin. Wisconsin is the state to which Bartleby and Loki, the two angels, have been banished. The means of their escape from this upper-Midwest purgatory is a church in New Jersey. Along their way the angels pass through Illinois and Pittsburgh, before crossing into the very state where God is located throughout the movie (the Garden State, of course!). After having been summarily dismissed from my seminary post in Wisconsin (not for watching Dogma, I’m assured), I too headed for New Jersey. Before that I had lived for a while in Illinois (home of Bethany) and Pittsburgh (home of Moobie). Watching Dogma is in many ways a reflection of a journey that I’ve accidentally undertaken.

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Another kind of dogma seems to be at work in the Eagle Mountain International Church in Newark, Texas. The Associated Press announced that 21 cases of childhood measles had broken out in the church, particularly among the homeschooled and unvaccinated. Fears of inoculating against a pre-medieval faith have led many of those who trust their own knowledge above that of the collective specializations of educators, to put their children at risk for the sake of belief. The belief, perhaps unsurprisingly, is poorly informed. One of the pastors of EMIC (!) has been encouraging vaccination as biblically sanctioned. If not for the sake of your children, for the sake of the scriptures…

Vaccination, in various forms, was developed in both Christian and pagan contexts. The earliest examples come from Asia where the plagues sent by the devil were resisted with human ingenuity. It takes a paranoid twenty-first century, first-world faith to suppose saving our children is some kind of conspiracy. “Let the one without germs,” we can almost hear them say, “throw their tissues away first.” In my Pittsburgh days, I was very much a literalist. How surprised I was to see Lady Aberlin from Mister Roger’s Neighborhood playing an angst-ridden nun, derailed by an exegesis of “The Walrus and the Carpenter” in Dogma. Although the Neighborhood is “anytown” those of us locals knew that Fred Rogers was from Pittsburgh. Lady Betty Aberlin was the niece of King Friday XIII, and only those with no conspiratorial imagination would suggest it is merely coincidence that her cousin is named Kevin. With or without dogma.

God in the Shops

Over the past few weeks, as I’ve been out and about, I’ve been noticing the way that the divine has been utilized by shop-keepers. In a culture where incipient religion is so pervasive, it seems that God is treated much like the NSA in some quarters—always watching, always vigilant. I popped into a shop selling locally made items (I try to support the local economy when I’ve got a greenback or two to spare, although that is rare), where I saw a sign reading “Shoplifting & Theft Will Be Judged By God.” The sentiment gave me pause. Deeply embedded in our society is the idea that without a divine mall cop, we would all run amok with crime. Although religion is pervasive in the world, much of it is non-deistic, and yet highly moral (particularly in east Asian nations). Their cultures have advanced, even beyond western culture in many aspects of technology, and yet gods (and specifically our God) do not figure into the ethical equation. Pillage and plunder do not seem to erupt when God is not in the shop.

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Whimsical signs have been popular decorative items for decades now. The problem with whimsy is that it loses its effectiveness once the initial chuckle is over. Signs reading “no pain, no gain” in fitness clubs may inspire day after day (although I have my doubts), but the cute warning that “the dog is crazy” on your doormat fails to impress after the first reading. (It must be pretty obvious that I don’t entertain much.) Nevertheless, shops stock those impulse-buy signs that are clever and witty, if soon outdated. I found one the other day reading, “Don’t judge me because I sin differently than you.” Even with the strains of self-righteousness, there is valid thought here. When the woman caught in adultery was brought before Jesus, he said, “Let the one without sin throw the first stone.” This disputed passage is one of the most pertinent in all of Scripture. No stones flew.

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Finally, a friend came in bearing a shopping bag with Jesus on it. “Lookin’ good for Jesus, the King of Kings, King-size Tote” it read. The bag was clearly designed with a heavy dose of irony. I couldn’t help but notice that the bag was full of bottled gas. This portable version of the only begotten is a reminder of how commercial our religion has truly become. Although clearly presented with tongue distending cheek, we know that, as I tried to convince many at Gorgias Press, Sects Sells. People will buy cute knock-offs of their deities. In Wisconsin we used to visit Holy Hill, a Carmelite shrine where all manner of sacred kitsch lined the walls, from glow-in-the-dark rosaries to cheap, plastic saviors. The shop was never empty. Perhaps it is possible to worship both God and mammon after all.

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Alien Religion

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Despite my interest in aliens, my viewing of the Alien movies has been tenuous at best. The image of what looked like an egg hatching a green sun over a particularly badly formed waffle always brought the tagline “In space no one can hear you scream,” to my juvenile mind. When the original movie came out in 1979, it seemed too scary for a kid in high school. I first saw Aliens (part 2) when living with a friend after seminary. He explained to me the missing gaps left from never having seen the original, and I was impressed by how Sigourney Weaver pretty much took on the alien queen single-handedly. I was still too young, however, to realize that there’s always room for an alien or its egg to attach itself inside any spaceship or escape pod. You can never really get rid of the things. I finally saw the first installment some ten years later, and it was clear that, as in nearly all series, the first was the best. Ridley Scott’s films take considerable energy to watch. No one seems capable of matching his dark moods and sense of a hopeless future. I left it at this state for another decade, until recently reading that Alien 3 marked the culmination of the “theology” of the series. Over the holiday break I decided to find out if this was true.

Ripley, who can never get a break, finds herself the sole survivor (again) on a prison-colony at what used to be a lead ore refinery deep in space. While the company had abandoned the facility, a group of inmates who had formed a religious order decided to remain. Having grown up in a refinery town, so far I’m on board with the story. Separated from society, from women, and from temptation, the prisoners are a fundamentalist sect that would seem to fit well into the woods of Wisconsin. Ripley threatens their delicate balance of celibacy, and although not a virgin she ends up conceiving an alien in a Madonna-esque way, not even knowing how she became pregnant. When she decides to incinerate herself rather than allow the alien to be born, she falls into the fire in a cruciform dive just to drive the point home. Before her dive into hell, however, Ripley tries to motivate this band of incarcerated monks to fight the alien. When they say the company will save them, she responds, “What makes you think they’re gonna care about a bunch of lifers who found God at the ass-end of space?” Again, echoes of Wisconsin.

Doubtless, my experience of the movies has been skewed by my own experience. Still, Alien 3 holds to a pattern that emerges fairly often in movies with a strong horror theme—religion is the progenitor of terror. The prisoners’ religion is described as “apocalyptic,” and it frequently appears that in movies where a civilization is on the brink of collapse, religion awaits to greet the survivors with open arms on the other side. In the horror genre, this is often a cold, clammy comfort. Although religious elements were largely lacking in the Ridley Scott and James Cameron episodes, I do hear distant echoes of Moby Dick here from the very beginning. The dark alien, like the white whale, is elusive and destructive and does not relinquish its hunt until Captain Ahab, or Lieutenant Ripley, is dead in its grip. And since Alien Resurrection awaits in yet another sequel, like the white whale, the alien never truly goes away.

Secret Life of Apples

Considering that the story of Eden fits the pattern of many an ancient myth, modern writers still occasionally argue about what the fruit on the tree of life might have been. The favorite with medieval theologians seems to have been the apple because of the similarity of its name in Latin and the presumed badness of the act. Apples, however, are nutritious and make up a large part of autumn’s outdoor appeal. While at a local orchard over the weekend, apple picking, my daughter pointed out a tree with what might be termed biblical properties. A tree full of ripe apples yet to all appearances the tree was dead or dying. Perhaps that is nature’s way with apples, but it also seemed like such a resurrection symbol that I just couldn’t let it go. Would the apples carry on the line of the dead parent tree? Was there life after death?

I’m not sure why I’ve associated apples with new life. Shortly after my father died, I planted an apple seed in a plant potter in our Wisconsin home. To my surprise, the seed germinated and began to grow. We did not own our house, but we lived on a wooded campus and two large shade trees had been blown over in the past few months, so when the young tree was large enough, I planted it outside. The lawns on campus were rather aggressively mown with students who sometimes had anger issues, so I put up a little fence around the young tree to keep it safe from accidental mulching. By the time I was asked to leave Nashotah House, the tree was taller than me (not such a feat, but the fact that it survived so well was pleasing). No apples had yet appeared, but the tree is a symbol of new life. No one on campus knew its meaning, and I doubt very much that anyone thought much about it one way or the other after I left.

I often wonder if that little tree is still alive, and, if so, whether or not anyone enjoys its apples. Every year when the trees begin their long journey into a winter’s sleep, the apple trees send forth the own message of resurrection. Some will associate the fruit with sin while others will find pleasant autumnal memories. And a very few, I should suppose, will always think of trees as a symbol of someone they wish they might have known a little better. Far from being a sign of sin, the apple can be a sign of forgiveness and self-giving. Whether it is a myth or not, the northern hemisphere has begun its inexorable turn away from the sun. I look at a tree that is dead and full of life at the same time, and to me it seems to be a very different kind of fall than some suggest the Bible intends.

Where? Wolves?

The problem with occasional phenomena is that they are seldom empirically verified. Try as we might, no one has managed to be in the exact place at the exact time on Loch Ness to capture definitive evidence that Nessie exists. Of course, it is very difficult to prove that something doesn’t exist. I have a creeping suspicion that not all of reality can be quantified. I’m very glad for the parts that can be, but a little mystery never hurt anyone. I’ve just finished reading Linda Godfrey’s Real Wolfmen: True Encounters in Modern America. There—I’ve already lost some of you! We all grow up to learn that there are no such things as werewolves and I’ve experienced many a peaceful night in that knowledge. Nevertheless, many people do report seeing upright wolf-like creatures, and many of the people interviewed by Godfrey appear to be entirely sincere. What makes this intriguing to me is that many of these episodes are reported in a circumscribed area (near which I used to live). While reports come from across the country, it is easier to dismiss one person who saw something odd once than it is to discount many people who see a similar thing over many years in the same general vicinity. That’s why I keep coming back to Godfrey’s books.

Being an open-minded writer, Godfrey also considers possible spiritual explanations for what people see. Shamanistic traditions, in this case particularly Native American ones, do not dismiss transformations from human to animal. It is difficult for most of us to accept that a person could bend the laws of physics and biology—for which we suffered through so many tests in our education—to mutate or mix human DNA into or with lupine stock. Indeed, it takes the faith of the world of religion to believe that. And yet, people see beasts.

We have been in the process of sealing the borders to our universe since the Enlightenment. The vaster our universe becomes the smaller the realm of possibilities grows. But we haven’t even explored all of our own little planet yet. The deep-sea trenches remain largely out of our reach, and the sheer volume of the oceans boggles the imagination. Even on land, we can’t watch every place all the time. The possibility of getting to somewhere truly remote is frequently an optimistic illusion. At times with my wife’s family I’ve ventured to places so far from civilization that freedom truly feels palpable. And as we hike down some neglected trail, talking to alert the grizzlies to our presence, nearly always we end up encountering others out here to escape from the likes of us. Yet a whole lot of the woods remain off-trail. It’s not a small world after all. And it’s October. Who’s to say there’s not the occasional werewolf out tonight?

Whirling Spirits

A photograph and video of a “fire tornado” in Australia have been lighting up the web the last few days. Well, technically there is no such thing as a fire tornado, although that term serves perfectly well as a colloquial expression for the phenomenon. Having spent several years studying vortices for a project on weather language in the Bible, I came to know tornados particularly intimately. Dust devils, caused by surface heating, look and act like tornados, but a true tornado is cloud-based. The fire tornado is probably better termed a “fire whirl” or a “fire devil”—an expression that has a particularly ominous tone. Such vortices occur in wildfires in other parts of the world as well, and they are, obviously, very dangerous. When my wife pointed out the comments on this site (which also has a photograph and a link to the video), however, the implications for a blog on religion became clear.

One of the points I made in my weather work was that severe weather is almost always attributed to God. The comments on boingboing affirm that the concept retains its currency. Now, reading comments on most websites reveals just how juvenile the web readership generally is. On many sites the comments are so annoying that even Spongebob Squarepants would seem an intellectual heavyweight by comparison with the writers. Nevertheless on boingboing, by comment seven God had been brought into the conversation. In this instance, reference was aptly made to the movie The Ten Commandments, with others chiming in that nature here far outdid Cecil B. DeMille’s efforts at a realistic fire devil to represent God. The comments then move on to the guiding of the Israelites by a pillar of fire in the wilderness. Intermingled with the biblical references are meteorological comments attempting to classify the whirl a bit more precisely.

When something out of the ordinary occurs, our default seems to be God. This in no way discounts the scientific discussion for what is really going on. The religion and science comments simply talk past one another—they have the same referent, but entirely different levels of engagement with it. Although not the scientific names, “devils” and “tornados” represent different, if visually similar, phenomena. Vortices seem natural on a round planet that follows a round orbit while rotating swiftly on its axis, and yet they remain comparatively rare. The name “dust devil” probably goes back to indigenous traditions associating the whirls with ghosts or spirits. For Christians encountering these concepts, heathen gods were devils (as is evident in the name Devil’s Lake, Wisconsin, named “Spirit Lake” by the Native Americans. The same applies to Devil’s Lake, North Dakota, but I haven’t been there.) It seems to me that these vortices neatly summarize religious sensibilities: an awe-inspiring event is one culture’s deity, another culture’s devil, and a third culture’s natural phenomenon empirically explained.

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The Price of Tolerance

While on a trip to New England recently, my family had taken an exit to look for a bite of lunch. We followed one of those innocuous dinner-plate symbols that often grace roadside signs next to a stylized hotel bed and a gas pump that looks like a suicidal robot. This particular exit, however, seemed unwilling to deliver on the food part. As we wound down an unfamiliar road, we came across the golden cupolas of a Sikh temple. This was the first Sikh temple I’d ever seen, and my daughter asked why she’s never heard of Sikhs before. “Because they never cause problems,” was my reply. Of the major world religions, Sikhism is notable for its lack of overt violence even though a sword is one of the religion’s symbols. Unfortunately, over the weekend, violence found some innocent Sikhs.

As of the moment, no one is able to identify the motives of the man who gunned down four Sikhs preparing to worship in Wisconsin. For many Americans the religion is a mystery. We hear of Hinduism and Buddhism in the course of many historical and literary ventures. Sikhism is somewhat newer on the world religious scene, but it still predates regular European trade with India during the “age of exploration.” Although the classification of religions is always disputed, Sikhism is generally considered around the sixth largest world religion in terms of numbers, and they have avoided the limelight in the western world, showing that a religion can rest on its principles. One of the truly praiseworthy principles of Sikhism is toleration, an idea that his held in very high regard.

From WikiCommons

Toleration often clashes with gun ownership in the United States. Just weeks after twelve people were murdered for going to the movies, we have more headlines of private citizens (some mentally disturbed) with ready access to firearms. And more innocent people are dead. Even the shooter is dead, so we will never likely know whether this was simply a case of mistaken identity or hideous intolerance at work. In my time in Wisconsin I came across many Christians who were extremely intolerant of any viewpoint other than their own. Fortunately, they were the vast minority among the people that I knew. Still, the paradigm that I see emerging disturbs me to the core: we claim it is our right to own guns while identifying with a deity who let himself be tortured to death rather than harm anyone. I wonder if a culture can spell schizophrenia?

Which God?

In Sunday’s newspaper (that’s the kind of week it’s been) an op-ed piece ran with the title “Is God real? Putting the idea on trial.” Written by a priest, Geno Sylva, the article tells how a Wisconsin church set up a mock trial where the litigants argued the case. The trial did not reach a consensus on the matter, even when a great deal of “money” was at stake. Rev. Sylva is okay with that, noting that the main thing is to keep the conversation around God going.

The article brought to mind the Scopes Monkey Trial, another case where God ended up, indirectly, in the dock. It also occurred to me that the real issue is not the existence of God. Juries, and even—gasp!—lawyers don’t demonstrate the truth. The lawyer’s job is to convince people to approve of his (or her) argument—many famous cases are known where the lawyer knew his (less often her) client committed the crime. The argument gets shifted to guilt (one of the favorite tactics of the God of the Bible)—is the defendant guilty or not? Not did the defendant do it. Now let’s put God in the equation. God is not on trial here—remember, it is God’s reality that is being debated.

It appears that God, as an abstract, does not and cannot matter. The mere existence of God proves nothing. Rev. Sylva mentions Einstein as a believer. Well, in a very qualified way. Einstein’s “God” was non-interventionist; the laws of relativity ran the universe. Enter the atomic bomb. QED. The existence of God is not meaningful to believers if God does nothing. The purpose of worship is, after all, to please and interact with God. If God exists like an ancient, unmoving statue, nobody’s happy. The kind of God that worshippers want must be at least able to hear prayers, and must be able to do something about them. Their God is interventionist. This is not Einstein’s god.

Arguing whether God exists proves nothing. It would be like arguing that the universe exists. If it does, so what? What Rev. Sylva’s faithful need to know is does God do stuff. Is there promise of heaven or threat of hell? Or, less crassly, does the ethic of God compel me to do good? Is God, as the old hymn says, “mighty to save”? A god who merely exists is an academic or intellectual curiosity. No more. Will Rev. Sylva’s congregation be happy with that? It seems likely that if the verdict denied God’s existence the party on the side of the Lord would simply appeal to a higher court.

What's really at stake?

Material Whirled

With the moon and Jupiter waltzing slowly so high in the sky, radiating such brilliance early in the morning over this past week, it is understandable how ancient people came to see the gods as material objects. The course of progression seems to have been physical gods to spiritual gods: the earliest deities ate, drank, made love, fought. They were of the same substance as humans, or at least of the same psychological makeup. The Egyptians, Zoroastrians, and Greeks all toyed with ideas of beings of “spirit”—non-corporeal entities that did not participate in our material world, but were able to influence it. In the world but not of it. The tremendous gulf between great goddess and material girl was born. Today that concept is taken for granted, especially in western religions. We are locked into physicality while God is free to come and go.

Many religions respond to this by suggesting that we should look beyond the physical to the majesty hidden from biological eyes. And yet, physical creatures that we are, we are drawn back to material means to demonstrate our spirituality. One of the perks of working for a publisher is the constant exposure to new ideas. At Routledge I have been learning about the rising interest in material religion: the manifestation of religion through physical objects and rituals. This aspect of religious life easily devolves into a cheapening of faith into mass-produced, religious knickknacks and kitsch. Some mistake this for the real thing. While living in Wisconsin, my family used to visit the spectacular Holy Hill, the site of a Carmelite monastery atop a large glacial moraine. On a clear day you can see Milwaukee from the church tower. It is a large tourist draw.

No visit to such a shrine would be complete without the obligatory stop at the gift shop. Even the non-believer feels compelled to buy some incredibly tasteless artifact to keep them grounded in reality. Many of the items—giant glow-in-the-dark rosaries, maudlin mini-portraits of the blessed virgin Mary (BVM as the insiders call her, not to be confused with BVD) and the crucified Lord on all manner of crosses, line the walls and shelves. This commercialization is not limited to the Catholic tradition. Evangelical groups realize the importance of branding as well, passing out cheap merchandise (or better, selling it) with Bible verses emblazoned on it. These signs of faith sell themselves, but they blur the sacred distinction between human and divine. Does religion point to a reality behind the physical? This is its claim, but what is the harm in making a bit of cash on the side, just in case?