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Growing Green

It was bound to happen sooner or later. I married into a family of singers, and when we gather at a cabin in the woods, singing breaks out. In the drought-tormented northwest, under an extreme fire ban, there was no campfire, but that doesn’t stop the music. Once campfire songs begin, “Green Grow the Rushes, O,” always appears. I’m no singer, but I spent a couple years as a camp counselor, and many years before that as a youth conference attendee in the United Methodist Church. I know the song by heart. Usually it is now a sign for the adult males to sneak back to the cabin rather than endure the twelve repeating verses. Nevertheless, the question invariably comes up: what do the words mean? We have a couple of lists, here and there, explaining the lyrics, but the fact is the origins and meaning of the carol are obscure. It’s origins appear to be England, but the countdown of twelve verses contain imagery that is Christian, Jewish, and pagan. Over time, many of the verses have, like most oral tradition, undergone corruption. In many respects, it is almost biblical.
While it might be fun to run down all the verses and discuss their potential meaning, that is a task best left to a day when I have my computer working again. With limited internet access and an iPhone from which to post, full-scale exegesis is a daunting task. One aspect of the song, in any case, is clear—it is generally accepted to be a Christian catechetical tool. Repetitive and, especially before adulthood, fun, the song rewards those with strong memories for such obscure phrases as “April rainers,” “symbols at your door,” and “bright shiners,” in the proper order. After the song is over the teaching begins.
I have a book of camp songs from my counseling days, and it suggests a hermeneutic key to the song. My wife studied musicology, and she provided a somewhat more authoritative source. Then, of course, there’s Wikipedia. On some of the verses there is a general consensus, but most are open for debate, with some seeming to point to pagan origins. Tied up with the fact that the song is, in some places, connected with Christmas, this blend of Jewish, pagan, and Christian ideas comes as no surprise. The age and origins of the song are unknown, but it features references to Greek deities, Jewish laws, and Christian miracle stories. Musicologists have had a crack at the song, and surely will examine it again. The strangeness of the lyrics suggest a mystery to explore. Some mysteries are still to be found around the campfires of the north woods on a summer’s night.
  

The Reign of Rain

I’m on vacation for a week. My job is such that taking vacation is becoming a rare commodity, what with precious few allotted days and move-in, move-out schedules of a collegiate child, and so on. And also company policy about keeping employees in the office between Christmas and New Year. Anyway, now that I’m here I should be kicking back and enjoying the beautiful lake and getting out to do the things inmates of the city seldom do. It has, however, rained every day that I’ve been here. Not all-day rains, of course, but just enough that plans have to be interrupted or changed at the last minute. I end up sitting in the cabin playing Solitaire when I should be out getting some fresh air. So it goes.
Ironically, I am staying in the drought-stricken west. The western United States, I learned when researching for Weathering the Psalms, has been ensconced in a decades’ long drought. In fact, prior to my family trip here it hadn’t rained in quite a while. Our arrival with the clouds was, after all, mere coincidence. Still, it’s hard not to take the weather personally. I know that the weather is larger than any one person’s needs or desires. I also know that water is a commodity even rarer than vacation days, largely because of our misuse of the limited supply that we have. California’s plight has been in the news. We have large cities in water-challenged environments and people treat water like there’s no end to its abundance while the opposite is the case. Just thinking about it makes me thirsty.
There are many things a person can go without, some of which feel absolutely essential at the time. Many vacations, I know, are extravagant. Fancy hotels, high-priced entertainment, exotic locations. Work can feel so crushing that vacation my become the one island of sanity in the midst of a hostile ocean of obligation. For me, vacation is time with family in a stripped-down, natural setting. Of course, we do indulge in some of the comforts of home, but having nothing in view outside the window beyond that which nature dictates is a transcendent experience. From where I sit, I can see nothing of human artifice. I do see clouds, however. I know that more rain is on the way. And I know that it is a gift, complain as we might, of the highest magnitude.
  

When You’re Alone

The story is told of how evangelist George Whitefield, on one of his several Atlantic crossings, traded some commodity for a deck of playing cards that he immediately threw overboard. The antipathy to card-playing among some Evangelical groups is, of course, well known.  The idea is that instead of wasting time on trivial pass times, one could be improving one’s soul, growing closer to God than to dissapation. Similar objections were raised to drinking alcohol and going to the theater.  Leisure was a fairly new development as food production became more efficient and trades became specialized and the concept of the work day emerged. The real issue is what you did with your time off.  Here at the cabin, Whitefield might have experienced apoplexy.  Decks of cards are found in profusion, often in use over breakfast and after dinner. I learned to play Solitaire while in high school. Although we were evangelical, we never really had a problem with cards. An abandoned mother with three little boys could hardly come to any other rational decision.  

Solitaire, of which I believed there to be only one canonical version, was the ultimate game for when you were alone.  Nobody was around, and you were bored.  Grab a deck of cards.  Solitaire, as I eventually learned, specifically Klondike, was notoriously difficult to win.  And, in the right circumstances, can be very addictive. Often I’ll marvel at five or six people all sitting at the table playing Solitaire at the same time. As I join them, I wonder–why does it feel so good to win at Solitaire? It is a game with no opponent but chance. Your starting hand often determines your success.  

Why should I care if I can stack all my cards up on the aces? What does that prove? Whom have I beaten? Is it my rage against the gods, or the inherent unfairness of the universe? Repressed aggression against all those many people who’ve underestimated me, or never given me a chance?  Why should this make me happy?  At least with poker, crazy eights, hearts, rummy, or nerts, I have used some skill to win.  Instead I’m here taking on the multiverse itself, wrestling with the divine. I could say more, but there is a deck of cards in front of me, and nobody else is awake yet. I do what anyone would do alone in such circumstances.  

Ancient Tech

I feel like scraping Roman numerals on the wall of my cave with a sharp rock. One for each day I have to spend without my laptop. I’ve been working on this blog, born in this very cabin in which I sit, for six years now. With some exceptions, I’ve posted something new (and, I hope, thoughtful) every day. Even holidays and weekends. Most of those posts have been written on the deceased laptop that’s sitting in my carryon, electronic carrion. This has caused me to stop and consider that the most lasting words—the ones we all quote or at least recognize—tend to come from a far older form of communication technology: the pen and paper. Of course, there are older technologies yet. The Sumerians figured out that clay of the right consistency keeps marks made by a pointed reed pressed into it while it was still damp. Cuneiform writing lasted for millennia as the most advanced technology humanity had devised. The results, however, were bulky, heavy, and fragile. Few could learn the technique. It was an elite skill.

Nobody quotes the Sumerians anymore. Well, maybe the occasional quip from Gilgamesh will work its way to memory, but not much else readily does. The Bible, perhaps the most quoted book of all time, at least in western culture, wasn’t written on clay. By the time the earliest books of the Bible came along, scrolls had been developed. Probably suggesting itself from the way that papyrus naturally rolled up, this early form of paper—indeed, the word “papyrus” gives us our word “paper”—could be marked up with styluses or brushes and ink. Prepared animal skills, or parchment, sometimes called vellum, could also be used, but they were expensive. Pens at this period were sharpened objects dipped into ink, but the most famous words, well, penned by humankind were passed down in that medium. Copied, recopied, memorized. Electricity hadn’t even been discovered yet.

  

Printing presses and their children—typewriters and the consequent qwerty—have led the way since they were invented. Until, however, the 1980s at least, professors would accept only the old fashioned manuscript for papers. Indeed, the medium had given its name to the end result. We still write academic papers, although they are more often published and read electronically. So here I find myself in a cabin on a beautiful lake, surrounded by nature, worried about a communication device that can speak with the stars. There may not be workable clay here—the soil is far too sandy and I don’t have the patience to look up how to make clay on my phone—but there is paper. Pens are scattered everywhere. I am at home in the matrix that has given us the great ideas of humankind.

Skewed Perspective 

Mysterium tremendum is the term often applied to numinous experiences. The sense of being in the presence of something both terrifying and compelling. Used to describe theophanies and divine encounters, it can also apply to entirely natural phenomena. As a child I visited Niagara Falls since I had relatives in the region. I would watch the Maid of the Mist with a fascination bordering on paralyzing fear. The boats seemed so small compared to the roaring falls. Surely serious danger was involved. Stories of passengers returning soaked and wind swept from the thundering cataracts only added to the mystery. We were poor, however, and couldn’t afford the thrill.

Many years later I returned with my own child. It was time to make an impression. We boarded the boat and came so close to the Falls that the draw of the numinous was overwhelming. Naked power. This water, were we not safely on a boat, would obliterate us, snuffing our lives with no more effort than it takes to fall from a cliff. A mere human could stand none of it. I was simultaneously humbled and invigorated. This was like touching a source of ineffable vitality. This was no mere boat ride. I was in the presence of something undefined. Distilled force deadly and blessed.

  
On my flight across the country yesterday, we flew over the Great Lakes. Between Erie and Ontario, we spied Niagara Falls. Navigating by air is usually a matter of inspired guesswork with me, but this was unmistakable. A large river near two Great Lakes, and a large misty curtain of spray, visible even from this altitude. Any remaining doubt was dispelled by the captain’s announcement . Here was one of the wonders of the natural world, tiny and silent from a gods’ eye view. Perspective, it occurred to me, made all the difference. Standing on the rim of that watery canyon, although the river is dammed and reduced, encompasses a sense of awe. Riding the Maid of the Mist close enough to be baptized in this unruly Jordan even more so. From above it was but one among many tiny features of a miniature landscape that had been conquered by an unnatural technology. Which was really real?

Monster Impulse

MonstersSome people are impulse buyers. In fact, retailers count on it. All those last-minute items next to the cash register while you wait your turn to consume—they beckon the unwary. I have to admit to being an impulse book buyer. I have to keep it under control, of course, since books are “durable goods” and last more than a single lifetime, with any luck at all. A few years ago I was in the shop of the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh. It was my last day in the city where I’d spent my post-graduate years and I didn’t know when I’d ever be back. What could help me remember this visit? A book, of course. Why I chose Monsters, by Christopher Dell, to mark this particular occasion, I don’t know. I love monsters, yes, but why here? Why now? Why in the last hours I had in my favorite European city? It was a heavy book, hardcover and unyielding in my luggage. I had to have it.

More of an extended essay than a narrative book, Dell’s Monsters begins with a premise that I never tire of contemplating: religions give us our monsters. At least historically, they have. There is an element of the divine as well as the diabolical in the world of monsters. As a student of art, what Dell has put together in this book is a full-color unlikely bestiary. These are the creatures that have haunted our imaginations since people began to draw, and probably before. One exception I would take to Dell’s narrative is that the Bible does have its share of monsters. He mentions Leviathan, Behemoth, and the beast of Revelation, but the Bible is populated with the bizarre and weird. Nebuchadnezzar becomes a monster. Demons caper through the New Testament. The Bible opens with a talking serpent. These may not be the monsters of a robust Medieval imagination, but they are strange creatures in their own rights. We have ghosts as well, and people rising from the dead. Monsters and religion are, it seems, very well acquainted.

The illustrations, of course, are what bring Dell’s book to market. Many classic and, in some cases, relatively unknown creatures populate his pages. They won’t keep you awake at night, for we have grown accustomed to a scientific world where monsters have been banished forever. And yet, we turn to books like Monsters to meet a need that persists into this technological age. About to get on a plane for vacation, I know I will be groped and prodded by a government that wants to know every detail of my body. Sometimes I’ll be forced into the private screening room for more intimate encounters. And for all this I know that William Shatner was on a plane at 20,000 feet when he saw a gremlin on the wing. Like our religions, our monsters never leave us. No matter how bright technology may make our lights.

Preacher’s Best Friend

PreacherPrinterPerhaps it’s because I was born in Franklin, Pennsylvania, or perhaps it’s because everything I’ve ever read about him suggests he was delightfully unorthodox, but whatever the reason, Benjamin Franklin has always held my admiration.  Probably we all like to hear echoes of ourselves in the great.  It is difficult to believe that during his early rise to fame, Franklin was eclipsed by an unlikely superstar who was, of all things, an evangelist.  George Whitefield, an early English Methodist, wowed the colonies with his born again message, perhaps being responsible for its appeal even today.  Randy Petersen’s The Printer and the Preacher explores the unlikely friendship that sprang up between Franklin and the younger Whitefield.  While cataloguing early founders religious lives is always problematic, Franklin was a self-described Deist, and certainly not an Evangelical.  Whitefield was very into the personal relationship with Jesus idea that Franklin found, at best, simplistic.
 
Petersen’s book is a kind of wishful history.  He wants to see Franklin and Whitefield together, often suggesting that they might have met here or there, or that they might have discussed this or that.  The fact is, we have little to go on beyond the reality that the two knew and respected one another.  Whitefield stayed in Franklin’s house in Philadelphia.  Franklin printed and sold Whitefield’s best-seller sermons.  Certainly there was a good business opportunity here.  Even today the evangelical Bible market is a strong one.  Savvy businessmen and women know that a good living may be had from the Good Book.  You can’t read a book like The Printer and the Preacher without thinking that Whitefield and Franklin were a kind of odd couple.  Franklin is remembered as a man of wit and science.  Whitefield is barely remembered at all.  One of the first preachers to hire a publicity manager, Whitefield was the Joel Osteen of his day, raking in the accolades for being emotional in front of salt-of-the-earth colonials.  His oratory skills were legendary.  Even though he is honored as one of the founders of the University of Pennsylvania, he was no scholar and has largely been relegated to an historical footnote.
 
Petersen’s book is a quick read.  His writing is winsome in an evangelical way.  He assumes the truth, or so it appears, of the evangelical position.  Nevertheless, there is material to stop and ponder here.  Many of the questions can never be answered: why, particularly, did Franklin and Whitefield hit it off, for example.  On a more approachable level is the why of Whitefield’s faded flower verses Franklin’s perennial bloom.  The message of Whitefield simply doesn’t stand up to the experience of history.  Human beings—many of them born again—experience constant turmoil in their lives.  Franklin, on the other hand, was the consumate pragmatist.  His aphorisms are regularly mistaken for verses of the Bible.  Although others would have gotten there, we largely have him to think for our harnessing of electricity, and even the birth of a new nation.  Whitefield’s spiritual descendants now rally to prevent stem cell research and the teaching of evolution.  Franklin’s children, illegitimate or not, reap the benefits of the lightning rod.