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.
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.
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.
Posted in Bible, Civil Religion, Holidays, Posts, Travel
Tagged Empire State Building, High Point State Park, Independence Day, New Jersey, New York City, Tower of Babel, World Trade Center
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.
I 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.
Posted in Bible, Deities, Egypt, Goddesses, Just for Fun, Movies, Popular Culture, Posts
Tagged Asherah, David and Goliath, Disney, Enchanted, Grimm Brothers, Into the Woods, Jack the Giant Slayer, Shrek, Stephen Sondheim