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Non-podcasts

The Bottom Line

AltarWallStUnderstanding, or even caring about, economics has been one of my abiding weaknesses. I suppose growing up poor, excess money was a foreign concept—at least on a quotidian basis—the possibility of acquiring much of it remote. The poor know their place. Still, I was intrigued by Scott W. Gustafson’s At the Altar of Wall Street: The Rituals, Myths, Theologies, Sacraments, and Mission of the Religion Known as the Modern Global Economy. It has turned out to be one of those very important books that could be world-changing, if enough people read it. The basic idea is simple enough: Economics is a religion. Immediately many people will put the book down. Economics may be the dismal science, but at least it’s a science, right? Not so. Not completely. While economics uses scientific principles (as does theology), it is a belief system based on an underlying myth that has pushed us to the place where the rich are far too rich and we’re convinced that the plight of the poor is simply a reality with which we must live. It’s all based on a myth of barter.

There are places I quibble with Gustafson, but he makes a very compelling case that the Global Economy, through a series of historically discernible steps, has come to be money making money for money’s sake. As he clearly demonstrates, developments in stock trading have made this an enterprise where people are completely left out of the equation and understanding what has happened impossible. As long as money has been made, the Economy is happy. This way of thinking, which is de rigueur for business schools and presidential wannabes, believes with the conviction of an evangelical that as long as money circulates everything will be fine. Those who believe this walk down Fifth Avenue with blinders on.

Step by step Gustafson demonstrates that Economics has all the trappings of any religion: a priesthood, mythology, rites and rituals, and an overarching theology. And this belief structure, like that of many religions, persecutes heretics. Indeed, human sacrifice is an innate part of this religion called Economy. It has sent missionaries out to the far reaches of the world to convert other ways of living to that of the Global Economy. And in this religion, it is safe to say, those who make it to Heaven are remarkably few. This book does offer potential solutions. They are solutions the wealthy and powerful will not like, so they are probably not going to be enacted any time soon, if at all. So while the rest of us are standing in line at the soup kitchen, I would suggest some reading that will make far more sense than you think it might. At the Altar of Wall Street could change the world for the better, if the Economy allows it.

Grim Where?

An inordinate amount of my childhood time was spent on television. While the device of the day had been around for a decade already, I was among those who grew up learning that watching was easier than reading. Like most children, I took the path of least resistance. I watched. As a teen, however, I rediscovered reading and from that time television began to take a back seat to books. When the great switch-over to digital occurred we didn’t get a conversion box, and we could never really afford cable for as little TV as we watch. When a program gets commended, or if nostalgia takes too great a toll, we can always purchase programs—the price of watching television without the commercials. So it was that I began watching Sleepy Hollow. Very quickly in the first season the monster of the week trope was established as the plot grew more and more tangled. The Bible was so prominent in that season that I wrote an academic paper on it.

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Over the past few months my wife and I have been working through season two. The DVD version was delayed and we only watch on weekends. Recently we finished the eighteen episodes of the second installment. Clearly the budget had improved over the first season, but the Bible, it was also clear, had diminished. Throughout the first season the driving motif of the story was that biblical “prophecy” (from the book of Revelation) was unfolding in Sleepy Hollow. This is what one scholar has termed a “local apocalypse.” Throughout season two, however, the end of days is shut down. Molech, its architect, is killed. The headless horseman is less Death than a jilted lover. The second horseman, War, loses his armor and dies.

Magic, however, along with special effects, take on an increased roles. Instead of turning to the Bible to solve problems, the most helpful book to have on hand is a grimoire. Sleepy Hollow, which is anything but what its name suggests, is full of monsters. Powerful magic is required to contain them, and, it seems, the Bible is no longer needed as a tool to take down evil. Perhaps there is a parable at work here. I was drawn into the series by its biblical literacy, as well as its literacy in general. More action has been introduced, and fewer books. It’s a pattern I’ve seen before. I suspect I’ll watch season three presently. When I do I’ll be casting a wistful eye on the stack of books I have yet to read, and I’ll be wondering if reading may not have become easier than watching.

Act of Balance

They call it the green-eyed monster. Jealousy. Under its weightier name of envy, it becomes a deadly sin. I often wonder if envy isn’t behind the debate that seems to have atheists and believers in religion talking past one another. Each seems to want, it appears to me, what the other has. Atheism has emerged in this new century as the current brand of intellectualism. Those who rely on reason alone don’t require comforting ideas such as God or salvation to get along in a world that has learnable rules and no magic. On the other hand, as an article by Barbara J. King on NPR points out, some religionists (Alister McGrath, while good for illustrative purposes, may not be the most representative choice) insist that atheists miss out on the meaning of life. Goal-oriented behavior, which we all understand, in a traditional monotheistic context is a divine mandate. We want to get to a better place either here on earth or after we die, and God has given a set of rules to follow to enable us to get there. Along the way, nature veritably drips with the dewy beauty with which God has infused the universe. Those Mr. Spocks among us miss it all, for their non-nonsense approach to reality.

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It’s pretty clear, as I’ve traced it out here, that the believers envy the reputation of solid rationality readily claimed by scientists. We all would like to be able to prove we’re right. Pointing to a law of physics and declaring, “this law can never be broken” carries a satisfaction that is rare in the theological world. Still, I wonder if some atheists aren’t just a little jealous of the teleology of having a goal set by someone else. Heaven and Hell may be passé, but you have to admit that having challenging rules laid out is somewhat invigorating. Doing something because you “should” can infuse a sense of meaning into life. Some people, if they could just do what they wanted, would opt for no more than eating, sleeping, and meeting biological necessities. They sometimes claim religion gives them the motivation to do more. It can make a difference if a deity takes the initiative.

You’ll never, however, be able to prove a religious point empirically. Gravity pulls things downward as surely as sparks fly upward. And we can send a person into space to prove it’s true. No astronauts, as far as we can prove, have ever seen God in space (RIP, Edgar). Reason and emotion, religion and science, thought and action—these things need each other in order for a balanced life. Problems arise, it seems to me, if we take an extreme position. Life is complicated, and simple answers just don’t apply. Perhaps if we allowed for a bit more balance, we might all find life just a bit more satisfying.

Steel Pennies

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I remember seeing my first steel penny. At first I didn’t think it was real. Like many poor kids, I was a collector. I collected anything cheap: cancelled stamps, bottle tops from glass pop bottles, fossils, just to name a few free trinkets. And I’d started coin collecting, with pennies. I’d noticed the difference between wheat backs and Lincoln Memorial pennies, and I knew that the former might be worth something some day. There was a hobby store in town and by thumbing through the collectors’ books, before being shooed out, I’d learned that keeping an eye out for wheaties was a kind of investment. Just hold onto it long enough, and it’ll grow in value. I never saw a 1943 penny, though, until a fellow collector traded me one. During the war, he explained, copper was too valuable to use for pennies. Wartime, it turns out, changes lots of things. About the same time as these steel pennies were being minted, Casablanca was still showing in theaters.

As I sat down to watch Casablanca again last night, some new thoughts occurred to me. A wary eye can spot the cost-cutting measures of a wartime movie. Somethings never change. Nazis were bad guys, obviously, but we still didn’t know who’d win the war by then. And refugees flooded to Casablanca to try to escape Europe for America. The movie makes quite a lot of this endless waiting. It’s hot in the desert. People are waiting to go somewhere better. And there are elements of torture there as corrupt officials cooperate with Nazis, even though this is Free France. It occurred to me that this is an allegory of Purgatory. I’m pretty sure it’s not intentional, but here are lost souls waiting for deliverance. The plane to Lisbon is the soul’s escape to Heaven. Meanwhile the relentless waiting.

For a movie approaching 75 years old, Casablanca holds up remarkably well. The extras on our DVD tell us the plane in the final scenes is a cheap cutout just a few feet away on a sound stage. The mechanics attending it are little people to bring it into perspective. Tucked away in some box somewhere I’ve got a few steel pennies. These days coins change so frequently that I wonder just how stable this world really is. While the “Middle East” still has us as worried as ever, our money is, for all practical purposes, only virtual. Paychecks are mere electrons and I’m just a temporary repository between my employer and those who claim increasingly more of my pretend money. We seem to be caught between two worlds. In one nothing is really real at all. Rick’s Café Americain feels somehow very familiar, as we spend our time waiting for passage on a plane to Lisbon.

Gallows Hill

Over the past couple of weeks it has been in the news that the site of the “witch” hangings in Salem, Massachusetts has been identified. The actual site had long been suspected, and it was only recently confirmed by a group of historians using the empirical evidence available to historians. Although my interest in the Salem trials pre-dated my wife, nothing brings you so close to history as being a part of it. Descended from the brother of three of the women accused of being witches at Salem, my wife brings a sense of reality to the tragic accusations of three centuries ago. Although toyed about in the media (an episode of Sleepy Hollow, “Spellcaster,” in season two, featured an actual Salem witch) the fact is that nineteen innocent people were executed for a fanciful belief that the Devil was roaming about New England, and when you can’t catch the Devil, you have to use a scapegoat.

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One of those investigating the location of Gallows Hill was Benjamin Ray of the University of Virginia. I’m sure Professor Ray wouldn’t remember me, but one day as I was doing a campus visit for Routledge, I had taken AmTrak to Charlottesville to visit the religion department. Many of the faculty declined to see me, and as I sat on a bench in the hall (one of my academic dates had stood me up), Dr. Ray walked up to me and asked me if he could help. I explained who I was and he invited me to his office where we talked about Salem. I told him was wife was related to Rebecca Nurse, Mary Eastey and Sarah Cloyce, the two former, as he knew, executed for an imaginary crime, and the third accused. A strange quiet settled over the office. He told me his interest began because he too had descended from a Salem family. His ancestor, however, had been an accuser rather than a victim. It was a strange rapprochement. Opposite sides brought together in scholarship.

What truly frightens me about Salem is that we have not outgrown it. Presidential hopefuls spew the same fear and hatred toward Muslims, the hispanic immigrants who make our economy possible, and women (this should sound familiar) trying to “take the place of” men. And the crowds cheer, as crowds will do. Even though Donald Trump cussed twice in his Liberty University speech (an infraction for which a student would have to pay), President Jerry Falwell, Jr. (typing that makes me shudder) shrugged it off saying that we’re all sinners. Some sinners, however, carry a wicked, knotted rope with them while other sinners try to eke out a living in a nation where some can get rich by owning casinos while others frantically spend their inadequate cash hoping to win Powerball. We now know where innocent people accused of witchcraft died, but have we learned anything from it over these past three centuries?

What Do Sheep Know?

We trust those we see in the media. You see, those who have the longest reach can bring in the most advertising dollars and therefore must have a wisdom the rest of us lack. The cult of celebrity is perhaps the truest cult of all. Don’t get me wrong, I like reading books by bestselling authors once in a while, and I like movies by talented directors and writers. The problem with the cult of celebrity that it often confuses fame with knowledge. If someone knows how to get you to pull your wallet out, they must know about all kinds of things, right? It stands to reason. A recent article in The Guardian features an interview with Ridley Scott. Forever in my mind typecast as the director of Blade Runner and Alien, I think of Scott as one who understands science fiction. He, of course, gave us a version of Exodus that many didn’t buy, and now that The Martian has been gaining attention, people are once again wondering what they might learn from the director.

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Ironically, like the recently late David Bowie, Scott considers himself an agnostic. As the Guardian article says, that doesn’t stop him from having a lot to say about God. Catherine Shoard notes that religious questioning runs throughout Scott’s movies. The big issues, it seems, still matter. People will crowd to his movies and perhaps not even know that they were facing the questions that motivate people like Scott. Taking up such questions in the hopes of making a career out of it all is still not a wise choice, but if you can put it in fiction without people knowing it, you might become famous.

I’ve always been of the opinion that everyone is an expert when it comes to religion. Believer or not, everyone knows what to believe and is pretty certain about it. The people I find most fascinating in this mix are those who dare to question. While many doctrinaire religions call questioners “doubters” and suggest curiosity is some kind of sin, there are both religious and non who face the world with questions rather than answers. To me, this seems a more honest approach to things. The funny thing about this appreciation is that it is seldom reciprocal. Of course, people might be interested if I’d directed a block-buster movie or if I were a star. Until that happens, I’m an expert just like everybody else.

Digging to Look up

Ancient technology is a growing field of interest. A couple years back I gave a talk about ancient technology at a local Steampunk convention. The smallish audience that attended had lots of questions about how ancient people accomplished marvels such as the Antikythera Mechanism, or even the pyramids of Egypt. As new discoveries continue to show, our antique forebears had access to knowledge we have always assumed to be beyond them. An article in Gizmodo tells the story of how Matthieu Ossendrijver, an astroarchaeologist (and hey, this was simply not a job description I ever found in a college catalog, for the record!) at Humboldt University, has been studying an Akkadian clay tablet (the article doesn’t specify which one, beyond “text A”) that demonstrates that the Babylonians understood one of the principles that led to calculus. Tracking the movement of Jupiter, the Babylonian priests knew that measuring the area under a curve could provide the distance traveled by an object. This principle, in the annals of science, wasn’t discovered until about 1350, C.E. Babylonians knew it over a thousand years earlier.

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Although we marvel at the engineering of the ancients, we tend to think of them as superstitious. After all, they believed in gods and things like that. As Maddie Stone points out in her article, however, priests were also astronomers. Believing that messages from the gods existed among the stars, peoples of ancient times kept careful track of the heavens. Apart from romantic couples looking for time alone, how many people spend an evening under the stars, looking up at a universe that is so much larger than the internet that it can actually made you shudder? There is a wonder out there that can’t be replicated electronically. People knew that the sky and the gods somehow belonged together, and they knew this millennia ago.

Given that many of us hold doctorates in reading ancient, dead languages (too many, perhaps), you’d think all the clay tablets found would’ve been read, catalogued, and neatly stacked away by now. This is far from the truth. Tens of thousands of tablets were excavated back in the days before archaeology became an endangered practice in places like Iraq and Syria. Crates full of these tablets were shipped to museums and few have been transcribed, let alone translated. There is ancient knowledge stored away among the receipts and chronicles and myths of people who lived in the cradle of civilization, and now that information remains buried in museum basements because it is deemed not worth the money spent to provide jobs for those who can read them. As is often the case, however, when we are willing to listen to others, even long dead, we are amazed at what we can discover.