Only Takes a Spark

Fireworks have been the main event for Independence Day celebrations ever since I was a child. The fourth of July is a day for playing with fire. As a child I remember spending the meager allowance I had on sparklers and snakes. I haven’t seen one of those ash snakes for decades now, but the impression they made remains strong. A plug of some kind of carbonish material—you’d light the top with a match and it would flame and hiss and start to grow into a long, twisting exoskeleton of ash. They left a blackened circle on the sidewalk, and when they were cool enough you could try to lift the fragile snake in your hand, but it almost always broke apart before blowing away in the breeze. We also wasted our money on smoke bombs with their multi-colored smoke, but we never had actual firecrackers. Given the trouble we could make with an ordinary roll of caps, that was probably a wise decision on our mother’s part. All of this, however, was just a prelude to the fireworks.

As I sat under a cloudy sky last night wondering why every July fourth seems to rain, it occurred to me that fireworks are a violent form of celebration. Indeed, they are designed to imitate the sounds of battle—before the nuclear age—and we all know the thrill of when the loud, bright burst of pure light sends a shock wave through you. It is like a canon rocking your soul. Like many stirring experiences, fireworks had religious overtones from the beginning. Invented in China, fireworks were used for religious festivals. They were believed to be effective at driving away evil spirits and bring good fortune. Pyrotechnics, however, clearly have military applications as well. It is this strange nexus between religion and violence that makes, I suspect, fireworks displays so compelling.

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The local display here in Somerset County, New Jersey, was impressive for a region without large cities. I couldn’t help pondering the strange aesthetics of contained violence as the colorful explosions took place over my head. Illusions, I know. We always talk afterward about whether some of them are meant to represent anything. Did you see a smiley face, the United States, or even New Jersey? It depends on your angle of view. Is this a religious display or a celebration of violence? Looking around at the amazing diversity of peoples gathered here in this park with me, I feel strangely satisfied. I hear languages I don’t understand, and see people from all over the world here for a good show. Although thousands of us try to get to our cars at the same time, spirits are positive, for the most part, and all go home in a celebratory mood. Maybe the ancient Chinese were right and these pyrotechnics do drive away evil spirits after all.

High Places, NJ

The “high place,” in the Hebrew Bible, was a source of constant vexation to the “orthodox.” Scholars have long puzzled over what was meant by the term, the assumption early on being that they were geographically the highest points around. Although that interpretation no longer holds the sway that it once did, the concept of the high place has remained. I suspect that’s because there’s something mystical about being at the highest point around. July 3 was a rare holiday for everyone in the family, so this year we headed to High Point State Park. High Point is the geographical highest point in the state of New Jersey, up near the New York border. It’s not as high as the mountains you might see in the western part of the country, but at the top there is a panorama that gives unbroken visibility in 360 degrees. Except for the tower.

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Towers are just as biblical as high places. They are very human and always contain at least a small element of hubris. Nature may have said thus far and no further, but we can go higher. And those of us with the inexorable will to climb, must go up. The view from the top isn’t very good since the windows are steamy and the mildew makes you a little leery of getting too close, but the climb is intensive, even for those used to stairs. Nevertheless, a kind of light-headed giddiness attends standing at a point higher than which you cannot go. I pulled out my altimeter to discover we were 1690 feet above sea level. In New Jersey you can’t get any higher. Were there angels up here? How close to Heaven were we? Towers are irresistible as the mythical builders of mythical Babel knew. And although we couldn’t see Manhattan from here, I knew that just across the river taller towers stand.

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One World Trade Center stands at a symbolic 1776 feet, higher than we were at the moment. It was, after all, the requisite holiday to celebrate independence that brought us here in the first place. The vistas that we could see, however, were relatively undeveloped, a rarity for the state of New Jersey. If we had the time, we might have been able to get out into nature itself instead of these structures that humans build to mask the fact of our own limitations. Maybe that’s what high places were all about in the first place. Every day I walk past the Empire State Building on my way to work. I can see it if I find an office with windows. Over my head up here, on the very top of New Jersey, I see a bird soaring. I think of Melville, and Ahab, and Manhattan. Slowly I begin my walk down to lower places.

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Ethics for Rent

Ironically, the Bible is the basis for the western preoccupation with land ownership. What with commandments against stealing and coveting, the Israelites had a sense of being promised a land by God. It was their land and no human motivation—including imperial conquest—could trump the divine will. In the western world, so heavily influenced by the Bible, the concept of private property is itself considered sacred. If enough land to sustain yourself is good, even more land than you need must be better. That’s logic. Land-grabs by the powerful are nothing new. In America (land stolen from the original owners) no better symbol of affluence exists than property ownership. Like many things biblical, this is often a myth. Although I’m a white, Anglo-Saxon, straight, Protestant, I grew up among renters. My family couldn’t afford a house. When my mother remarried, my step-father owned his house and it was in such bad shape that as soon as he moved out to a rental property, it was immediately razed. On my own, I’ve always been a renter because I couldn’t ever afford to be anything else.

After Nashotah House, my wife and I considered buying. Wisconsin, apart from having no jobs, seemed like a nice place to settle. We researched. Your mortgage payments should be no more than 30 percent of your income, we learned. Living in suspended animation since those days, we’ve rented in a variety of places and the 30 percent figure has also turned out to be a myth. Affordable housing, in the United States, is set at that benchmark. A recent news byte in the Christian Century notes that in not one of the fifty united States is it possible to rent a one-bedroom apartment on 30 percent of minimum wage. 49 hours of work a week would be necessary to meet that benchmark in South Dakota, the state with most affordable housing. I know professors of Bible who own summer houses. That’s in addition to their regular houses. Meanwhile, many who would like to own something much more modest can’t afford even that.

The biblical worldview is an idealistic one. Recognizing that greed is inseparable from human will (even among a chosen people) the hope was that the poor would be taken care of by those who had more than their share. As the statistically inclined like to say, the numbers don’t lie. Housing, one of the most basic of all human needs, is exploitatively expensive. Many renters can never break out of the cycle of paying too much in rent so as not to be able to save up enough to make a down-payment on a place of their own. Yet prices go up while raises don’t keep pace with inflation. It’s all about ownership. Laws are in place to protect those who take (“legally”) for themselves. The rest pay into the system at three times a tithe. And even this, the numbers say, isn’t nearly enough.

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Burning Times

One of the most disturbing images from my childhood years is the self-immolation of Thích Quảng Đức in Saigon. Of course, I didn’t see this image as a child. It was high school before I was deemed mature enough (and the internet didn’t exist) to see such a troubling image. Now we are being told in a kind of gleeful grotesque tongue-in-cheek that those who seemed to claim similar conviction over gay marriage now have a chance to show their faith. Pastor Rick Scarborough, according to The Advocate, made such a statement. As of last Friday, he’s had to find a way to explain his remarks. I’m not sure what he said, but I find the implications distressing. Those who’ve supported gay rights all along haven’t been wishing evil on anyone. Schadenfreude can be quite troubling.

Maybe it’s just that we get so tired of self-righteousness. Those who claim to be the torchbearers of the truth seem to delight in pointing out the weaknesses that we all have. Who has never misspoke? Let he who is without sin cast the first syllable. Rhetoric can be our master at times. Beneath the unfortunate speeches, however, lies a terrible fear. Some who believe the Bible literally true can’t see this any other way. Poking fun at them, however, isn’t likely to make the situation any better. Quiet victory celebrations aren’t in fashion. We live in an “in your face” world where we like to see the stains appear on the immaculate suit. Banana cream pie in the face all made up for the television crowd. I’d rather see a world with no more need for self-immolations. Religions sometimes make this difficult.

Although I have reflected on religion deeply for many years and have come to take a very broad view of things, I still have very conservative friends. If I poke fun at their views from time to time I hope it is good-natured fun. I respect their rights to their views. I grew out of that culture myself and I’d be a hypocrite if I looked at it any other way. I am extremely pleased about the supreme court decision recognizing gay marriage. This, however, is a political issue. Religion has always informed political views, and has not infrequently stood in the way of fair treatment. These walls must come down. Before we begin the demolition work we need to make sure the way is cleared of any potential victims. One thing religions frequently do right is offer consolation to those who are suffering. It is the humane thing to do. Victory without humiliation is far better than the flames of Waco.

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Theological Cemeteries

There is a plague upon this nation.  When in one week, let alone one day, I hear about two colleagues being let go from their academic posts for not meeting conservative theological standards, I believe it is time for higher education to take a good solid look at what it claims to do.  Thomas Jay Oord, one of whose books I supported and saw through publication at Routledge, was dismissed from Northwest Nazarene University after, according to early reports, being considered for a heresy trial.  Almost simultaneously Daniel Kirk, whom I don’t know, was let go from Fuller Seminary, apparently following questions of his belief in traditional marriage.  Having been dismissed myself into an academic morass that has never passed for a satisfying career, I feel a sense of moral outrage here.  No doubt, I am more liberal than either Oord or Kirk, but this is not the way educated adults treat one another.  In fact, it is heinous.
 
While still teaching at Nashotah House, before I crossed some invisible line in the doctrinal sand, I often wondered about this.  Conservative schools want the credibility of professors with bona fide doctorates, and then wonder why they can’t get educated people just to nod their heads at all the right places.  Education should make people think.  It should make us all question our assumptions.  Any faith that can’t examine itself seriously and come back to thrive is no faith at all.  I know all too well how difficult it is to get along with a doctorate in a socially unacceptable field where the higher education economy is far worse than that of our own national economy that keeps limping along.  It is a crime to fire our brightest and best.
 
The unholy roll call could go on and on.  A few years ago it was my colleague Christopher Rollston who fell under the axe.  Although I’ve not met him, I understand the same thing happened to Peter Enns.  These two recovered, at least as far as finding a position goes.  Those of us who were successfully cast into the outer darkness—and I know I’m not the only one—have watched ourselves disappear from relevance as the academic world chugs blithely along.  We are a nation that elects public officials on the basis of their supposed religious outlook while at the same time hamstringing efforts to educate ourselves about religion. I have a question for the administrators who feel they are defending the faith by taking someone’s livelihood: when is the last time you thought about your faith? Really thought? If your God can’t think then it’s not just those of us who are liberal that are destined for Hell.

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Permian Record

GorgonIt looked like an arm bone to me.  Then again, I have no formal training in either anatomy or geology.  The strata of Pennsylvania shale was littered with shell fossils from before the dinosaur era.  Had I found a rare early animal?  You see, I love fossils.  In fact, I was so disappointed the first time I walked into a Fossil store that I’ve never had the heart to go back.  Something about finding the remains of creatures millions of years old is inherently fascinating, and I was fortunate enough to grow up by a river that had plenty of fossils for the taking (a great pass-time for children of humble means).  When I saw Peter D. Ward’s Gorgon at a local book sale, I had to get it.  In addition to my love of fossils, I also have a special interest in Medusa, and the title grabbed two aspects of my attention at once.
 
The gorgon of the title is explained by the subtitle: The Monsters That Ruled the Planet Before Dinosaurs and How They Died in the Greatest Catastrophe in Earth’s History.  As Ward explains, many in the media express surprise that there was anything before the dinosaurs.  Perhaps I grew up with too much Genesis on the mind, but I knew about the Permian Extinction—the most deadly episode in Earth’s biological history.  Over 90 percent of life forms died out, including some of  the cooler species of mammal-like reptiles like the dimetrodon.  I have to confess, however, that I don’t recall ever hearing about gorgons before.  They are a South African species.  Well, they were, long before apartheid and other ridiculous human foibles.  Indeed, one of the charms of Ward’s account is that he doesn’t separate the human element from the paleontological.  His visits to South Africa often demonstrated how the current dominant species of the planet participates in its own extinction.  Valuing personal gain over social justice cannot have long-term payoffs.
 
This is a compelling story of people committed to finding answers in a barren land.  To an inveterate fossil-hunter like me, it was a dreamy sort of read.  I had my fossil “arm bone” assessed by a geologist.  It was actually a trilobite trail.  A trace fossil.  Sometimes things aren’t what they seem.  The answer of why of the Permian Extinction transpired turned out to be the most distressing aspect of the tale.  Climate change, Ward demonstrates, can easily lead to mass extinction through the very act of breathing.  Our evolution has favored the current atmospheric makeup of our planet.  Dinosaurs, who appeared after the Permian Extinction, had evolved lungs for processing air with less oxygen than we’re used to.  Greenhouse gases can shift subtle, invisible balances that are necessary for taking a breath.  And I could extrapolate to a future where technology will again come to the rescue, but only of those who can afford it.  And I wonder what far distant evolved intelligent species will make of a civilization where financial gain was considered the greater good than survival of an entire species?  Humanity itself will have become a fossil by then. But a well-dressed one.

Seeing the Trees

Into_the_Woods_film_posterI first learned of Stephen Sondheim’s musical Into the Woods while liking in the woods of Wisconsin. I was teaching a summer term course of mature students, one of whom used one of the songs to illustrate the point he was making during a presentation. Of course I don’t remember what the point was, but I did remember the movie. Then along came Shrek and fractured fairy tales were back in business. Enchanted brought Disney into the act, and a number of self-aware takeoffs from the brothers Grimm have followed. I’d seen the film of the stage show of Into the Woods before, but it had been a while. Over the weekend we decided to watch the new Disney offering of the story and as we did a couple of familiar, if obscure, ancient mythological motifs came to mind.

Cinderella, as we all know, was sorely abused by her evil step-mother and step-sisters. She seeks solace at her mother’s grave, in the woods, of course, in the movie version. While there, singing somewhere between a lament and a prayer, her mother appears to her in the tree that grew from a branch she’d planted there many years before. It’s a musical number, of course, but my mind couldn’t help going back to Asherah. Asherah is considered by many (without good reason, and I should know) to be the goddess of the trees. Yes, this was a mortal, a dead mortal at that, who spoke from the tree but the way she was presented in the movie was distinctly divine. Indeed, there is similar iconography from ancient Egypt. It was almost enough to make me go back on my own evidence that Asherah wasn’t a tree goddess.

The giant’s wife poses a real threat in this film. Jack’s beanstalk and the effects resembled those of Jack the Giant Slayer, a movie that I only vaguely remember as being one of many I watched with bleary eyes on a transatlantic flight a few years back. Nevertheless, Mrs. Giant is here stomping about the village when Jack and the baker decide to take her out at the tar pit, with the help of Little Red Riding Hood and Cinderella. The preferred weapon is a sling. As the giantess is pelted with stones, she grows annoyed until Jack, in the perfect image of David, strikes the giant between the eyes, slaying her. We all know the fairy tale version ends with the beanstalk chopped down. We’ve entered a new world, however. A world where Bible and fairy tale are harder to distinguish. And not only that, but even fairy tales no longer have the canonical status they once held.