Tag Archives: Time

Monumental Time

One of my nieces works on the 10,000-year clock (aka Clock of the Long Now). I’ve written about the project before—the object is to build a clock that will run a myriad of years. For comparison, 10,000 years ago we were only beginning to tamper with this concept we call civilization. Clocks have been my muse this week. Monumental clocks have long fascinated people. The Engle Clock, in the National Watch and Clock Museum, was completed about 1878. In those days, these large clocks (it literally weighs half a ton) toured the country as technological marvels—something that fails to impress, I suppose, in an iWatch age. Nevertheless, this is a clock with all the whistles and bells—literally. Figures come marching out at various fractions of the hour, culminating with a skeletal death chiming the end of each sixty minutes. The figures are both secular and sacred, a mix that the people of the days just after the Civil War no doubt appreciated.


At the top of the clock, at quarter to the hour, Jesus appears. Doors above him open and the “three Marys,” including, of course, his mother, come out. Meanwhile the twelve disciples process in front of their Lord, each respectfully turning toward him. The devil appears, shifting from window to window, and one disciple does not turn to greet Jesus. This is Peter who instead turns his back, and immediately, to borrow a Gospel trope, the cock above their heads crows. Finally, as the apostolic procession winds down, the Devil appears last in line. It is all quite elaborate. The clock took Stephen Engle two decades to build—time he would never recover. The religious message, I suspect, was taken much more seriously then than it is now. After all, the clock is a museum piece.

Throughout the museum, references to Christianity abound. Not only Galileo, but many Medieval time-watchers saw God literally in the face of time. Clocks were embossed with religious figures. Hours were kept to remind the faithful to pray. The time, as the New Testament insists, was short. Ironically, we still build monumental clocks. Some are based on the 9-billionth of a second vibration period of cesium, while others are made to last ten millennia. We have secularized time. Now its purpose is mainly to tell us when to go to work. When to wake up to go to work. And when we might eventually leave work. I might enjoy building clocks myself. The fact is, however, I don’t have that kind of time.

Time in a Museum

Over the weekend we visited the National Watch and Clock Museum in Columbia, Pennsylvania. I became aware of the museum during one of my steampunk phases, and since we were running out of summer, it seemed the ideal time to go. I didn’t know what to expect, but it certainly wasn’t anything quite so profound as what we actually found. Time, as we now know, is relative. In fact, up until just two centuries ago, nobody really knew what time it was. Well, maybe those people in Greenwich did, but the average person, even if s/he owned a watch, lived on approximate time. Try telling that to any boss today! The need for people to meet trains at various stations led to the standardization of time in the United States. Now the government declares official time, kept by atomic clocks. You could be a billionth of a second late for work and Uncle Sam would know. What happened to the days of looking for when the sun was directly overhead and guessing from there? Greenwich Mean Time indeed.

Time in inherently religious. For human beings, conscious of its passage, it is a limited commodity. Our concerns for our personal A.D. (“After Death” as the misnomer used to go) have led to religions suggesting that God, or gods, take a special interest in the passing of time. That became clear from the first display in the museum. Hardly a placard existed without some reference to the gods—people knew that time was somehow divine. Not only that, but the passage of time was punctuated by religious observances. Even such things as deciding when to harvest your crops could lead to religious revelations. Besides, time was set in motion by those ageless beings known as gods, and they mandated on-time performance. The ability to influence time was far beyond human capacity, thus deities informed us how to handle it. Into the Medieval period clocks maintained a regular array of religious imagery, reminding the user that this is the ultimate non-renewable resource.


It was almost overwhelming, being surrounded by so many clocks. I remember being a young man—indeed a little boy—when time seemed to be in infinite supply. Religious observance was always a large part of that pool. Here I stood, a middle-aged man, spending my time pondering time. All the while, it was passing. Time is measured by regularity. Uniformitarianism is the geologic principle that informs us of the age of the earth itself. Beyond that, we’re told, the universe—so long ago—had its own beginning and anything that has a beginning will inevitably have an end. Such sobering thoughts amid the beautiful timepieces that so many spent their lives crafting. Now we only need glance in the corner of our computer monitors, or pull out our phones to glance the time. Taking a bit of it is wise, it seems to me, to explore our fascination with time itself. There is an air of eternity about the very enterprise itself. Well worth a summer’s day when forever is in your rear-view mirror on the way home.

Clockwork Universe

longitudeIn a clockwork universe, time is an essential interpretive factor. Those of us constantly crushed for time hardly realize just how recent of an invention it is. Time has, of course, been around forever. Human interaction with it, in the daily sense of what defines work and what defines leisure, dates only to modernity. Train schedules, in the Victorian Era, led to the need for standardized time across large land masses such as North America. Prior to that, with an uncanny precision to those of us who infrequently take the time even to look at the sky, clocks across the nation were set at noon by observing the sun at its zenith. Even though the concept of longitude existed, its measurement at sea was maddeningly difficult. The Phoenicians, the ancient mariners who circumnavigated Africa, did so by staying in sight of land as much as possible. The open ocean gives few clues as to those imaginary lines we assign to keep our location certain.

Dava Sobel’s Longitude: The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time, is, despite the lengthy title, a brief book laying out the story of John Harrison. Harrison, a clock-maker whose precision clocks made the calculation of longitude a much more precise science, was in a race for a royal grant to reward the discoverer of a method for giving precision to ships at sea. Harrison represented those who believed accurate clocks could solve the problem, while others argued that mapping the heavens would give sailors the best chance. Often we forget that loss of life greater than that on the Titanic could occur when ships ran aground, due to lack of knowledge concerning their longitude. Navigating the seas before GPS and before accurate watches, was often a matter of informed guessing with very high stakes. Harrison never did get to claim fully what he’d earned and we’ve all but forgotten how difficult finding the correct time was when our computers remind us, to the second, of precisely when we are.

Prior to science, the keeping of time was a religious function. Sacred calendars marked holidays—often with the ulterior motive of keeping farmers on track for when planting time for various crops, and their harvests, should commence. Telling the change of seasons by when to add or discard a layer of clothing seems eminently practical, but it doesn’t help an agricultural society to plan ahead adequately. The gods would give the time, and all they would require was a cut of the profits. It was, all things considered, a reasonable trade-off. And now holidays have mostly slipped their religious moorings to become times when we simply don’t have to go to work. Speaking of which—look at the time…

Jesus of Hollywood

What hath Hollywood to do with Boston? Not enough, apparently. In this week’s Time magazine, an article entitled “Films Are His Flock” by Josh Sanburn revisits the ark. Actually, it throws the doors open a little wider—it looks at Hollywood’s effort to woo the religious. Ironically, although universities all across the country offer courses in religion in popular culture and the Bible in popular media, they are constantly trying to rid themselves of the detritus known as biblical scholars. High brow is in, while Hollywood makes no secret of its love to the common people. For Americans the common person is religious, or at least doesn’t block out religion like the educated crowd does. And they come with pockets lined. Religious movies, if marketed well, can be phenomenal successes. In my four years teaching at a secular state university, my Bible classes were filled to capacity each semester. Still, Rutgers coyly refused to hire me full-time. “There’s no interest,” they seemed to say. “Nobody reads the Bible.”

Meanwhile, according to the article, Jonathan Bock, founder of Grace Hill Media, a marketing firm that sells the Bible to Hollywood, knows a good thing when he sees it. Noah is about to come splashing into theaters. Son of God has already incarnated. Exodus is yet to come. And those are only the movies that are explicitly religious. I had no trouble pointing out to my long-suffering January term classes that religion plays a role in many movies, most of them explicitly secular. Those in Hollywood know that religious themes—the Bible even—resonate with the general public. Having grown up in, or maybe even below, John Q. Public, I have always known that the Bible makes good movies. Doubt it? Ask E.T. As he appeared risen, ascended, and glorified, the stranger from above wearing a white shroud and backlit with a nimbus, many of us squirmed in our seats for we had seen a clever representation of our Lord.

Perhaps it is resistance to the McCarthyism of the 1950s that so many intellectuals associate with religion, but academics just can’t seem to understand that this is important. The Bible business is a multi-million dollar industry, and yet, universities would prefer to ignore the implications. Meanwhile in Hollywood, they’re trying to make sure they get the blend just right. Theatrics and theology. You’ve got to be careful whom you choose to offend. The Last Temptation of Christ, based on a novel written by a devout Nikos Kazantzakis, just didn’t perform as a Scorsese movie. It is the job of people like Jonathan Bock to figure out why. And it isn’t hard to see that it’s a buyers market on America’s left coast. Indeed, without a hint of cynicism the Bible will bring in a flood. But that’s just academic. Or it should be.

Noah looks down over Times Square

Noah looks down over Times Square

10 More Questions

10QuestionsI don’t watch television. This is not some moralizing, high-brow stance—it’s just the fact that it isn’t cost-effective with the little time I have for the tube. Growing up, however, television was at times my best friend. I see we’ve grown apart over the years. Who’s to blame? In this week’s Time magazine, the 10 Questions are directed to Mark Burnett, whom, prior to reading them, I couldn’t have identified with my TV Guide atop a Bible. Burnett is the mind behind the movie Son of God, originally a History Channel television show that managed to beat out even Game of Thrones. The laconic remarks left to Burnett reveal a man somewhat cagey about religion, but with a sense of mission nonetheless. What had never occurred to me is that even evangelists have corporate sponsors. According to Belinda Luscombe, Burnett said, “Do you remember what it was that launched Billy Graham? It was William Randolph Hearst. And Hearst Corporation put the first initial money into The Bible series and Son of God.” The first money into the son of God, Billy Graham, and the Bible. Who can match such a pedigree?

The public airing of faith lacks something without big money. The Crystal Cathedral, Lakewood Church, Heritage USA. Where would we be without the media moguls to lead us? There’s gold in them thar hills. All it takes is those willing to ask the gullible to mine it. Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also, n’est-ce pas? Seems like the Son of God raced past the Lego Movie on its opening weekend, but fell behind Non-Stop, although he’s still gaining. This is the sign of true divinity. Who will ultimately win? Does anybody have an ark?

Crystal Cathedral Ministries went bankrupt in 2010 and sold the Cathedral to the Catholics. Heritage USA lost a slug-out with Hurricane Hugo, as Jim Bakker was checking into a cell with Lyndon LaRouche. Can even the Son of God rock the critics with such a record? Mark Burnett is also credited with helping to create reality television. As we watch the rise and decline of the Duck empire, and the tearful admissions of personal failings from evangelists so rich that we have to admit a funny thing happened on the way to the Compaq Center, can there be any doubt where reality really lies? Who can really tell the difference between The Bible and The Game of Thrones?

A Girl Named Cthulhu

It was only a 25-word blurb in last week’s Time magazine. A Canadian couple decided to let the internet community name their daughter. As of the time of writing the third most popular suggestion was Cthulhu. WWLD? The internet has brought Lovecraft’s sleeping deity to life. Ironically this evil, belligerent, and fearsome god tends to have more fans than some of the more loving, cuddling varieties of deity around which western culture arose. Children are a parent’s ultimate investment (or should be) and the name we bestow will influence their view of life. I still recall the scandal of when I first showed my Mom a baseball card where the player was named Jesus (Spanish pronunciation, please!). I innocently asked if that was allowed since we’d been taught that although other biblical figures were fair game, the name of God was a retired number. There was only one Jesus, and this baseball card a monument to sinful arrogance.


Of course, we lacked the biblical training to know that Jesus is only the Greek form of Joshua, a name of fair game to any young lad. Naming after a deity was otherwise verboten. Of course, that has all changed now. Names are up for grabs, and it is getting harder to find unique ones. H. P. Lovecraft, who died in relative obscurity, could find publication only in pulp fiction magazines—the lowbrow literature of his day. The divine fruit of his fertile imagination has now taken on the dimensions of true divinity. How many potential names are out there on the internet? Lovecraft alone gave us many gods. All the Dianas, Thors, Carmans and Dylans out there are in good company. Why not name a child after a god?

Names do effect a child’s view of life. Growing up in a biblically literate family, I often thought of the Stephen of the New Testament. The first Christian martyr, he died with a vision of heaven in his eyes, earning the meaning of his name, “crowned.” I aspired to live a selfless life, in as far as such a thing was possible in the twentieth century. It was my name—it was my destiny. There are no other “Steves” in my family, and when I was old enough to comprehend that many children bear family names, I asked my Mom whence mine had come. It turns out that I was named not after a family member or even a saint, but after a cartoon character. Touché, Cthulhu! Long may those of us with unorthodox namesakes stick together. The world is our myth.

Shadowy Futures

A thoughtful, if prescient commentary by Andy Crouch in this week’s Time magazine takes us into the uncanny valley. Despite the boastful protestations of the materialists, most people are not very brave at facing death. With the passing of Ariel Sharon and the sad story of Jahi McMath, the question of keeping the practically dead practically alive takes on a particular poignancy. It’s not that the dying are the ones protesting, but it is the living. We rage against the dying of the light, and, as Crouch notes, it is often the most religious that protest the loudest. Religion, ironically, is the framework that many use to cope with the ultimate inevitability. Death is scary. That’s why so many pray and others watch so many horror movies. We have trouble finding uncannier valleys than that of Crouch’s shadow of death.

Religion, in addition to putatively renouncing the fear of death, has often introduced the denial of life’s goods along the way. What ascetic would not have truly welcomed death? A starving belly day after day and crushing loneliness in the most barren environments earth has to offer should change one’s perspective. Not all of us have such heroics, however, hardwired into us. We may see the illogic of a religion that states death is release into a better world while creating even greater terrors of the other side of that veil. We dance between the horns of a dilemma where neither side will really sustain our weight. As Crouch notes, what we truly want is the assurance that somebody loves us at the end.


The materialist simply falls asleep for one last time. The faithful prepare to pass through a portal through which nobody has reliably come the other way. It is the ultimate test of faith. In the nineteenth century, when the death of a loved one at home was a common occurrence, an acceptance, perhaps morbid, pervaded the era. Who can think of Victorians without pondering the grave? Technology has cheated death both in small ways and in large. We are grateful for the salvation from small issues that once meant almost certain premature death, but we are scratching at the biggest door of all—immortality—begging to be let in. Will that head in a jar really be me? I have an uncanny feeling about that. Religion, for all its problems, should help us through this valley, if we really believe.