Colorful States

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Kevin Smith is one of New Jersey’s own. I’ve always considered it one of life’s great ironies that Loki and Bartleby, the fallen angels in Dogma, move from Wisconsin to New Jersey, the exact same route my career took. (Feel free to read into this.) I was therefore curious when I heard, a few years back now, that Smith had come out with a horror movie. Now I’m not a fan of horror for its own sake as my sensibilities are more towards the ambiguities of gothic, but I finally decided to view Red State. I had no prior idea what the movie was about, but it speaks volumes that the title suggests quite a bit with just a simple adjective and noun. If there’s anyone out there even slower in getting to movies than me, and who is hoping to watch Red State, consider this a spoiler alert. Read further at your own risk.

Red State deals with religious fundamentalists—the Five Points Trinity Church, to be exact. The group is loosely based on the Fred Phelps gang, and the film actually makes reference to Phelps to say that Abin Cooper’s group is even worse. They’re weaponized. You’re probably starting to get the picture already. Cooper’s congregation is his extended family, and they’ve been protesting against homosexuality and other forms of what they consider immorality, but in an extreme way. They lure sinners into one of their sting operations, incapacitate them, and then murder them during church ceremonies. When the Feds discover evidence of a murder, a Waco-like Branch Davidian stand-off occurs with the predictably bloody gun fight that follows. There are moments of humor, but it is a bleak parable—yes, there is a wholesome message here—that speaks loudly about intolerance.

Analysts, well actually just some analysts, have realized that horror movies and religion are very close compatriots indeed. Reading the Bible may be a little easier on the eyes, but even some parts of the Good Book can inspire nightmares. Indeed, as Adin Cooper’s sermon emphasizes, fear of God is very important. As is fear of fear of God. The regression can go back as far as you wish. Religions develop in response to fears. Not only in response to fears, but clearly this is part of the mix. Horror movies show us what we fear the most. Is it any wonder that they cross paths with religion so often? The only unusual aspect for Red State is that it is so explicit about it. It is a traumatizing film in many ways. Maybe because (spoiler alert) the one who concocts the whole religion is alive and well at the end and is the last character that we see. Such are parables.

Banned Books

I feel short-changed. Cheated, if you will. This is Banned Book Week, and a story in Publishers Weekly over the summer touted the benefits of the local independent bookstore. Owners of indies know that these stores are centers of community. Gathering places for those who love literature. I feel cheated because my local town has no independent bookstore. Neither did any of the towns where I grew up. For a year when money was almost as scarce as it is now, I lived in Ann Arbor, Michigan. There were bookstores there. For a couple happy years before that I dwelt in Boston—a city in which books are never difficult to locate. Edinburgh is known as one of the literary capitals of Europe and my days in that magical city were inundated with books. Even Nashotah House, with its somewhat backward facing eyes, had a little bookstore. And there was another indie over in nearby Oconomowoc. I now live in the desert.

Oh, there are bookstores nearby. Independent ones, I mean. When’s the last time you saw a chummy conversation among locals at Barnes and Noble? Princeton has the Labyrinth. Bernardsville has the Bookworm. New Hope (while across the river in Pennsylvania) has Farley’s. There’s an indie in New Brunswick and I discovered Watchung Booksellers in Montclair just a couple of weekends ago. Clinton has a tiny little shop where my daughter once met a children’s author doing a book signing and I picked up some Ray Bradbury. These are my happy places. All of them require a drive of at least half-an-hour. I’m not a local. I don’t see anyone I know, except some of the clerks.

Analysts have been saying for decades now that we live in unhealthy isolation from our neighbors. I get up and jump on a bus before most houses show any lights in the morning. I stumble off and fall into bed after eating supper following the return trip. I’m not alone in my attempt to survive in this late capitalist purgatory. One thing that would help, I believe, is a local bookshop. There used to be a used bookstore in my town, called Chapter Two. I used to walk there of a Saturday morning, just to browse. Rent grew too high and it moved to the next town over and its name changed to chapter eleven. My local town is affluent. There are signs for Trump everywhere. What’s obviously missing is a local independent bookstore. I, for one, would be a regular patron.

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A Dusty Return

dustreturnedThe fiction author who had the most influence over my formative years was Ray Bradbury. Wait—let me qualify that a bit. I read of number of series aimed at juvenile, male interest (Doc Savage, Dark Shadows, and such) but these weren’t really intended as “literature.” I also read quite a bit of Poe, and his influence may certainly have rivaled Bradbury. The thing was the latter was still alive and producing books, mostly of short stories that tickled my imagination. Despite my reluctance to let books go, there have been several periods in my life where I’ve had to sell off my collection (this is the mindset of the non-affluent) and all of these childhood collections went, except for Poe. Now that I’m a more reflective adult, so I’m told, I have found a renewed interest in some childhood classics, and Ray Bradbury books are seldom expensive. When I found From the Dust Returned in a used book shop for a steal, I said “why not?”

This particular book came from long after I’d sold my Bradbury collection. I had never seen nor heard of it before. As an adult, interestingly, Bradbury doesn’t seem scary at all. From the Dust Returned, like many other Bradbury collections, is a somewhat novelized set of stories. This one is set in a haunted house where, in his usual descriptive style the storyteller offers artful prose and painterly writing, but no real scares. As we are coming upon Banned Book Week, however, I did note one of Bradbury’s common themes—the lack of belief leads to the death of characters. I’d read some of his stories where this took place before. Still, this time he goes a bit further. Tapping into things just ahead of the rest of us, as he had a talent for doing, one of his characters laments the loss of belief in religion as well as creepy, Addams-esque characters. People are no longer believing and it causes ghosts pain.

Part of Bradbury’s appeal is clearly to the young imagination. I’ve promiscuously read hundreds of authors since my last Bradbury book. My tastes have evolved. I find the same is true when I go back to the Dark Shadows books that were so cheaply had at my neighborhood Goodwill. I still go back to these early writers, however, and there is a kind of innocence about them. These were stories I’d read before I’d learned that Poe was certainly not as macabre as real life could be. “Marilyn Ross,” “Kenneth Robeson,” Edgar Allan Poe, and Ray Bradbury may not feature of lists of banned authors. Some of them aren’t even whom they seem to be. They did instill a childlike belief in reading, in my case. Even if they’re now on the bargain shelf they will still receive my admiration for starting a lifetime of reading.

Thinking about Feeling

There’s a scene in Shrek where Lord Farquaad tells Princess Fiona “You don’t have to waste good manners on the ogre. It’s not like it has feelings.” That scene came to mind recently as I was pondering how we often use feelings—emotions—to claim superiority over others. During a course on Howard Thurman in seminary, we watched a video where he retold a story that appears in his autobiography With Head and Heart, where a young white girl was sticking an African American with pins because she believed they didn’t have feelings. Although it may be dangerous to attribute motive—let me call it interpretation then—Shrek is a movie about prejudice. Ogres are misunderstood. It’s a parable, if you will. Unfortunately there are people who still believe those not like themselves lack feelings.

This is a particularly disturbing idea for many reasons. Not only does it keep alive the unacceptable social situation where African Americans are shot when unarmed, and frequently in non-criminal situations, it perpetuates the idea that others are different in a way that makes them less than human. We can take this even further since one of the mainstays of science has been to deny feelings to animals, claiming that you need rationality to experience pain. Or at least suffering. Ironically, it’s the “reptilian brain” that provides us with emotions, and rationalists are quick to downplay emotions as a form of thinking. It’s easier just to kill a snake and ask questions later.

We deny others feelings as an excuse to mistreat them. Then we deny that feelings are important at all. Even Mr. Spock got angry once in a while. In a society that regiments an economic system that really benefits only a very few, we daily bask in the midst of this paradox. It’s clear that all it takes to have presidential aspirations threaten reality is money. Spend enough and anyone will believe whatever lies you happen to trumpet. After all, that feeling of superiority that fascism promotes is exactly the way to win a mass following. You’ll have to excuse me if I’m feeling just a bit out of sorts. It’s only a feeling, and it will pass. Unless we pay close attention to our emotions, however, we will never realize justice. We know that Shrek does indeed have feelings. It’s just that we’ve forgotten how to interpret parables.

Think about it.

Think about it.

Finding Your Way

lost-artOnce while visiting the house of a friend, we took a walk in the woods. It was an area I didn’t know and after a few minutes it became clear that we were lost. There can be nearly no other feeling more frightening for a child. We wandered in the trees shouting for help for what seemed far longer than the maybe twenty minutes or so that my friend was disoriented. The message was clear: never go somewhere unless you know how to get where you’re going. I’ve been lost a few times since then and the gut-twisting fear is the same. Where am I? The Lost Art of Reading Nature’s Signs, by Tristan Gooley, is an amazing book for anyone who’s had that experience. We are residents of earth and we should know how to find our way around the place. Instead, most of us live in urban environments and never spend a lot of time outdoors learning that nature provides many, many clues to finding your way. You just have to know what to look for. I found myself wishing I could memorize large sections of this tome, assuring myself I’d never be lost again.

There is an irony about reading such a book during the commute to Manhattan. Apart from his small chapter on navigating in cities, Gooley spends most of his time offering advice on spotting hints in nature. I can’t believe the behavior of the mice, rats, pigeons, and cockroaches I’ve seen in the city is any less neurotic than that of the people. In nature trees, plants, land forms, weather, fungi, and the stars can all be used to guide a person home. There is a touch of quaint Britishness to the book, but the tips included quite often branch out to specifics in the United States, or even elsewhere. What all of this means is that in its own language the earth makes sense. We need to learn this language. Although Gooley doesn’t say it here, when we destroy our environment we’re increasing our ability to get lost.

One of the more interesting sections of the book used churches as a means of orienting oneself in unfamiliar country or a town. Church architecture, at least initially, followed a regular logic with an eastern orientation and opinions about the sacredness of the ground on the north-south axis as well. Knowing this holy geography, along with the ability to read lichens growing on the outside and finding the clues on tombstones, you can often find your way. There’s some poignancy here. There was a time when churches, synagogues, and mosques were natural means of showing people their cardinal points. We’ve come to rely on our devices to show us the way, and it’s a little early to know if that’s been a mistake. And if it weren’t for work today, I’d be outdoors, taking a walk and trying to learn to find my way through nature.

On Practicalities

In a world where a metaphorical ton of money may be made by corralling electrons into specific shapes on an LCD screen, it may be easy to think of learning dead languages as a kind of autoerotic mental enterprise. Who has the time for clay-writing anymore? We have “money” (that we never see) to “make” at the click of a mouse. Although honestly, who uses a mouse anymore? So it was strangely gratifying to see Aviya Kushner’s article “Why Dead Languages Like Akkadian Still Matter” on Forward. Unlike Kushner, I didn’t grow up with exotic dead languages. Not even Hebrew. We took our Holy Bible neat. King James, of course. In English, just like God meant it to be. When I’d read every English translation available in my small town, I began to wonder about the original languages. I taught myself the Greek alphabet before going to college, but even at Grove City I couldn’t find any faculty willing to teach Hebrew. There was obviously something mysterious here.

Hebrew, generally printed in a calligraphic font, is difficult to teach oneself. Once I began, however, I had to learn what came before. That alien, runic Phoenician script fascinated me. Cuneiform even more so. I spent my graduate years pondering over Ugaritic, learning as much Akkadian as I could along the way. Then I realized Sumerian might take me even further back in history, but it was time to get a job. Earn a living. Make some money. Or at least some electrons.

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As Kushner shows, however, these ancient languages tell us how we got here. Those who earned their own day’s equivalents of millions of electrons used to spend their excess wealth on ancient clay tablets. I’ve seen them in private collections in various parts of the world—they seem to validate those who can’t even read them. Artifacts can be status symbols. Having spent years learning the finer nuances of Ugaritic, I eventually had to put my interest into my own personal museum. Universities—the only places that can afford to offer doctoral programs in impracticalities for the unwary—are the sole bastions of employment where cuneiform might come in handy. The irony is that many scholars have to travel to private collections to examine a tablet that some entrepreneur has purchased, but can’t read. Its meaning is lost to the world, but it is valued for it’s power to confer status on its owner. Those who might be able to read the thing, unless they are very lucky, will be out chasing electrons in the hopes of paying the rent. What could be more practical than that?

The Religion Code

People have strange ideas about what religion can and cannot do. Yes, many religions face the past—founders of various sorts gave dictates and statutes that were appropriate for all time. At their time. Few religious visionaries can see very far into the future, so their rules have to be massaged over time. When we see an Amish buggy clopping along next to a highway we suppose that this is a religion mired in the past, but we could be wrong. The BBC ran a story the other day expressing some surprise at “ultra-Orthodox Jews” and their getting into tech fields. What hath the Talmud to do with coding? Stop and think about that.

One of the aspects of this dynamic unaddressed by this story is how unescapable the internet has made learning tech. Your religion may have you following outdated principles at home, but unless your community can get on without the outside world, like the Amish, you’ll need to learn to negotiate technology. As the article points out, learning Torah and Talmud are transferrable skills. People genuinely seem surprised when what we might broadly call “the humanities” come in handy. Religion, when it requires serious reflection, builds critical thinking skills. It is only the blind adherence to principles that haven’t been thought through that leads to trouble. Even a Fundamentalist knows that this all has to make some kind of sense or something’s wrong. In fact, the article doesn’t suggest that a Fundie as a tech expert would be any cause for wonder. A humanities education might have helped with that.

Photo credit: Musée d'art et d'histoire du Judaïsme, Wikimedia Commons

Photo credit: Musée d’art et d’histoire du Judaïsme, Wikimedia Commons

One can’t speak of Judaism as a monolithic religion. In fact, religion scholars regularly speak of “Judaisms” just as they speak of “Christianities.” The various branches of Judaism hold study of scriptures in common, and the BBC article makes the point that this kind of thinking helps with problem solving. The great irony here is that when the problem solving comes in the form of getting computer glitches worked out it is considered valuable. When the problem solving merely helps people figure out how to get along in the world it is backward and parochial. Such is the strangeness of a world impressed by its own creation. The internet has brought a great many religions together. It has, I would suggest, created new religions as well. It is a myth to suppose that the rational rules of any hypertext markup language are that different than sages and rabbis arguing over the best way to make progress in a confusing world. No matter what our religion, we all need to make money, don’t we? And isn’t that the most truly ecumenical enterprise of them all?