Lent Presidents

Surely it’s appropriate that President’s Day falls in Lent this year. We as a nation, if we are wise, will repent of the horror we’ve elected upon ourselves. Those ashes on our foreheads remind us that sins come on a national scale as well as an individual. Any nation touting supremacy is in need of Lent, even if it’s founder’s day. Especially if it’s founder’s day. It’s difficult to believe that either George Washington or Abraham Lincoln would’ve truly thought the United States better than other nations. Having a secure and free place to live wasn’t an exercise in supremacy, but in the belief that people should be able to govern themselves. An Easter, if you will, of beliefs.

Symbolism is a major part of any religious holiday. The eggs, rabbits, and butterflies of Easter all represent something just as the burnt palms from last year’s Palm Sunday do. George Washington never chopped down the cherry tree—that was a story made up many years later. It was, however, a symbol to represent a truth. To represent a president who couldn’t bring himself to lie. The fact-checking statistics show that the current incumbent of Washington’s chair lies over five times a day. Listen closely here, for this is symbolism—yes, he did chop down the cherry tree. Where do you think those ashes on your forehead have come from?

An administration where supremacy is daily in the news is surely a sign of trouble. This President’s Day a national S.O.S. goes out, but to whom can supremacists call for help? They are already the greatest in their own minds. Supremacy was the hubris of Rome that eventually ensured its fall. The belief that the Roman male was the most supreme human template possible—far above women, slaves, and foreigners—was held until the day the Vandals and Visigoths came to the door. Preoccupied with its own greatness, it was an empire unable to see the symbolism clearly on display all around it. By that point it had become a “Christian nation”—a state with God’s own blessing on its white males and their entitlements. The insanity borne of excessive pride was no stranger to the seat of the emperor. Less than fourteen-hundred years later a new government would form. It’s leader so full of integrity and dignity that the common person believed he couldn’t cut down a cherry tree without telling the truth. And this year his birthday falls in Lent.

On the Nature of Publishers

An occupational hazard of the editor is paying obsessive attention to publishers. That stands to reason. Many academics are less concerned than some publishers think they are about such matters as who publishes their book. I suspect that many have, for whatever reason, found no welcome home among elite publishers. This happens often enough to make many scholars less worried about reputation than the practical matter of getting a publisher interested at all. There are a lot of original thoughts out there, and some of them occur to a person and just won’t let her or him go. An example: what terms are used for weather in the Psalms and why? Before you know it you’ve awaken before the sun for five years and written 75,000 words on the topic and you want to get it published without having to pay someone to do it. That kind of thing. I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the number of scholars who understand this kind of reasoning.

Also, it’s a matter of scale. I work for a premier publisher in the academic world. It may surprise many people to find out just how often when someone asks what I do (not very often, for the record) and then follows it up who I do it for, the interrogator has never heard of my employer. Academic presses, even important ones, are really only known among academics. Keep scale in mind. If you’ve ever walked passed Norton’s offices in Manhattan, and then those in which I spend my days, you know what I mean. Academia is small scale. For the average person reading a book is something they generally choose not to do. Of those who do read, very few read academic books. Those who read academic books tend to stick to their own discipline, or related ones. You get the picture—smaller returns at each step.

So, having written a book about horror movies, where do I take it? This isn’t one of those footnoted, look-how-erudite-I-am kind of books. It’s more of a I-noticed-something type. The question then becomes, who publishes such kinds of thing? I do worry about academic reputation—who doesn’t?—but this is a book I want the correct readers to find. That’s why McFarland suggested itself. People reading on pop culture, know to keep an eye on their offerings. Hopefully enough people will find it to have justified the effort. It won’t impress those enamored of collecting (academic) names. It isn’t the kind of book my employer would publish. Nor would I want them to. Call it an occupational hazard. Like any subject, knowing too much about publishing can take away from the fun.

On Time

Getting to the movie theater is not only costly, but increasingly difficult to schedule. This can be problematic for someone who likes to write about movies, but the realities of the commuting life aren’t very malleable. So it was that I finally had a chance to watch Arrival, on the small screen. It had been recommended, of course, and although it’s not horror it has aliens and a linguist as the hero—my kind of flick. Once it began, I wondered if religion would play any role in the story. Alien contact would certainly rate as one of the more formative religious events of all time. The only reference that was obvious, however, was the suicide cult shown on a news story in the background, immolating themselves as the aliens became known.

Louise Banks, a linguist who has security clearance, has a sad story. Spoiler alert here! If you’re even more tardy than me you might want to fire up Amazon Prime and read on afterward! The movie opens with her watching her daughter grow up, only to watch her succumb to a rare disease as a young woman. Then the aliens arrive and she’s whisked off to Montana to try to communicate with them. It’s only after repeated encounters, learning the written language of another race, that she asks who this little girl she keeps dreaming about is. The child is in her future. The aliens see time as cyclical, not linear, and by learning their language she begins to think like them—knowing the future holds a tragedy for her. The intensity of the experience makes her fall in love with Ian Donnelly, another academic, who will become the father of her child but who will leave when she reveals the future to him.

Just as the aliens prepare to leave, not religion but philosophy takes over. A question posed by none other than Nietzsche goes: if you could live your life over exactly the same as you lived it this time, would you? Nietzsche’s point was that those who say “no” deny life while those who answer in the affirmative, well, affirm it. Ian says what he would change. Louise, however, embraces life with the tragedy she knows will inevitably come. While religion is off in a corner doing something that shows just how nonsensical belief can be, philosophy stands tall and faces the difficult question head-on. Although the movie follows some expected conventions—aliens bring peace but militaries want war—it rests on a profound question to which, I’ll admit, I haven’t got an answer.

Weaponized Ignorance

Blissful ignorance. Yesterday I knew nothing of the Parkland school shooting until I went out to get the paper for my wife, just as I was leaving for the bus. My peace has been shattered ever since glancing at the headlines. How any rational being can’t see the horror we’ve created by allowing gun lobbyists to buy the Republican Party I simply don’t know. Yes, I’m afraid. Yes, I’ve thought that maybe buying a gun would make me feel safer. Then I realize the insanity fear breeds. We could, as a society, address this fear. We don’t, however, because there’s far too much money to be made by it. We become weak-kneed whenever we think of that money flowing any direction rather than into our personal coffers. Insanity? A small price to pay.

The priorities of this nation are so messed up that Bedlam looks downright civilized in comparison. Even as we’re trying to come to terms with this 18th mass shooting of 2018, Republicans are attempting to balloon an already obscenely bloated military budget. Where do these weapons of personal destruction come from, if not the military technology? We want so badly to kill the enemy, and the castoffs end up in the hands of a troubled public. A traditional firearm to protect one’s home may not be unreasonable, but an assault rifle is. It crosses the line between fear and hatred. With a White House incumbent who ran on a ticket of hate, we’re reaping the whirlwind which we’ve sown.

Fear, many don’t realize, is a gift. It preserves us from danger in many circumstances. When it rules our lives, however, it becomes a neurosis. A psychosis even. Politicians may act stupid, but they know well that fear-mongering wins elections. Study after study has shown it to be true. This is a science they don’t doubt. The ease with which guns are available to what is clearly a deeply divided and very frightened public is like a piñata full of hand grenades. This is a scenario with no winners except those who accept the power the fearful eagerly give them. This is the danger of a thoughtless government driven only by personal gain and lucre. Those faithful to the call of destruction are, ironically, often evangelicals awaiting the end times. Agents of chaos bring those giant hands ever closer to midnight. The sweep of the clock moves ever forward, and if they’re anticipating Armageddon there’s no need to wait. It’s already here.

Science of Unbelief

An article a friend sent me from Science Alert back in December recently came to mind. Titled “Thinking About God Might Make You Sweat, Even if You’re Not Religious,” the article by Brittany Cardwell and Jamin Halberstadt discusses how religious ideas are deeply engrained in human psychology. Like people who say they’re not afraid of spiders or snakes, people who don’t believe in the supernatural have made an effort to become this way. For reasons poorly understood, human beings are natural believers. As the article takes pains to state, that doesn’t mean a non-believer isn’t sincere. Thinking, however, doesn’t come only from rationality. Many people hold to the Mr. Spock fallacy—the belief that reasoning can solve anything. We all know from experience that it can’t. The big decisions in life—whom should I marry? What house should I buy? For whom shall I vote?—are often made with the emotions rather than rationally.

Which one’s the captain?

Reason has taught us to be expert deniers. We can learn to overcome our natural aversion to snakes and spiders and we can learn not to believe in God. Sometimes that belief can even be knocked out of us by the silly, unthinking behavior of “true believers.” But deep down it’s still there. Funnily, those who claim that reason alone answers all things are in denial about their own evolution. The human brain is a direct adaptation of the “reptilian brain” with its fight or flight impulses. That viper doesn’t plan to bite your ankle—it’s reacting to fear. Emotions are an integral part of thinking. Crimes of passion are committed by otherwise rational people sometimes. That thing you keep on bumping into in the room is, in fact an elephant. As irrational as that may seem.

The Science Alert article discusses the empirical proof that people fear to dis the Almighty. Were the brain a computer I’d say it was hardwired into us. We’re not wire and circuits, however. We’re messy, organic, evolving stuff that at one time lived beneath the waves. It took a certain amount of lungfish faith to believe we could survive on dry land. As mates approved of such irrational behavior, the trait multiplied and became more common. Today our smart phones and our cubicle window posters tell us there’s no such thing as a deity beyond our own scientific rules. The truth is, however, at some level we don’t really believe it. You can learn not to believe, but you’ll still sweat the big stuff, even in laboratory conditions.

Ashy Valentines Day

It’s been 73 years since it’s happened. Happy Valentines Day! And depressing Ash Wednesday. This is more of a popular culture conundrum than a sacerdotal one. I noticed in my many years at Nashotah House that Saint Valentine doesn’t make the liturgical calendar. This struck me as odd, but perhaps it shouldn’t have. The church has always had a difficult time with love. At least when it starts to get physical. Even if Valentine was a saint—and nobody knows for sure which Valentine it was—he surely didn’t become beatified because of his amorous inclinations. Nothing helps to put you out of the mood like being told “You are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

As a society we’ve been living in an Ash Wednesday that has been prolonged for over a year now. A government of St. Narcissus, for the only love there is love of self. Yet when I thumb through the liturgical calendar Valentine’s still not there. Ironically evangelicals—the name now belongs to those who support Trump—dismiss love as having anything to do with Christianity. This isn’t about love. It’s about showing hatred to the poor and stranger, the kicking out of those in need. It’s about military parades and “Sieg Heils” and law makers who vote themselves even more power with our tax dollars to fund their insidious schemes. There’s no need to gerrymander around the church—it’s on your side. Is it Ash Wednesday or is it Valentine’s Day? Surely it can’t be both.

Love is valued only in so far as it can be commodified. If you can get people to spend money on cards and chocolates and condoms then you’ve got a holiday worth celebrating. Otherwise you might as well join old Job sitting on his ash heap. The last time these holidays coincided the world was at war. The President had set up safety nets to catch those who were the victims of the greed that led to the Great Depression that is now all but forgotten. Nazis were a bad thing then. Now all we have to do is blubber about “fake news” and declare the truth a lie. Christians prefer Ash Wednesday to Valentine’s Day anyway. I admit to feeling a bit conflicted about this. Patriots and lovers used to be compatible concepts. We’ve been told that America is being made great again, but they called that Depression great too. From where I sit it looks an awful lot like Ash Wednesday to me.

Of Our Being

It happens every year. What with my commute schedule and personal disposition, I read a lot. This blog and Goodreads are my accounting system for keeping track of the thoughts that arise during all of this. Every year I get stopped by my first really important book that I’ve read since December’s roundup of last year’s titles. Paul Bogard’s The Ground beneath Us is this year’s first such book. Subtitled From the Oldest Cities to the Last Wilderness, What Dirt Tells Us about Who We Are, this tour of several fascinating locations is a wake-up call. Divided into three sections—Paved and Hallowed, Farmed and Wild, Hell and Sacred—Bogard’s book offers a kind of travelogue with the additional reminder that how we’re treating the land is the most terrifying example of what lack of foresight imaginable (why, Prometheus?) looks like. In a world with a rapidly growing population, we’re paving and building at unprecedented rates. World harvests, experts say, will last only another sixty years. Then we starve.

A dilemma I’ve struggle with here before is the fact that nobody owns this world. Nobody but those driven by money. There’s little that can stop them. This is exemplified by his chapter on fracking in my native Appalachia. Companies protected by loopholes—nooses, actually—devised by Dick Cheney can take over a town and destroy its environment. And this was even before Trump. And this is only but one example. Those who look soberly at where we’re going—and the melting permafrost in the northern hemisphere is about to make the globe nearly uninhabitable for our species—are ignored because they stand in the way of profits. Everybody loses. As a species we have neither the will nor the power to prevent it. Epimetheus reigns.

Not just doom and gloom, The Ground beneath Us is a thoughtful reflection on the human spirit. The titles of the subsections reveal that sacred ground—one of my recurring themes on this blog—is very real. Bogard isn’t a religionist, so you can’t accuse him of special pleading. His moving accounts of visiting sites hallowed by any number of factors, whether violence or simple belonging, reveal what home really means. What a dangerous, maybe even sinful, concept ownership can be. With chapters covering areas as diverse as Mexico City sinking under its own weight, to Ames, Iowa where what we’re doing to the soil is studied, to parts of Alaska accessible only by air, Heaven and Hell are daily and plainly played out before us. This is a very important book. We can only hope enough people will read it before it’s too late.