Eye of Survivor

I don’t watch television. This isn’t any kind of moral stance. It’s financial. We can’t afford any “triple play” plans for the little free time we have for television. My wife and I both work long hours. We like to read, so we don’t have time for the tube. We buy the shows we want (it’s more honest than advertisements) and movies are a one-off thing. I sometimes lose track of culture, though. Maybe I’m two-faced. I grew up watching television. Then I grew up. But I still occasionally read about television. When we stay with relatives or in a hotel sometimes we imbibe. What I’ve noticed the past few times we’ve been away from home is reality television. Programs with more and more bizarre “real” situations fascinate those who don’t get out much on their own. One of the venerable ancestors of the genre is “Survivor.” I’ve never seen it but even I know what getting “voted off the island” means.

A recent piece in the New Jersey Star-Ledger celebrates a local young man on the show, now in its thirty-third season. This youth, who fancies himself, well, a survivor, notes that his role models are Jesus Christ and Ronald Reagan. I shudder for the future of our species. This young man says he likes to “screw with people’s heads and lie every chance I get.” Is that Reagan or Jesus? Or is it all just a game? The piece by Amy Kuperinksy goes on to quote the boy as saying his tactic for survival is to manipulate people, getting one over on others. But then he’ll use Christianity to build bonds. Machiavelli might have been a better choice of role model here, but then, who has time to read when “Survivor” is on TV?

Photo credit: Smithsonian Institution

Photo credit: Smithsonian Institution

This isn’t going to devolve into an old person’s jeremiad about the younger generation. Nor is it a castigation of television. (As Homer Simpsons reminds us, many of us were raised by television.) Rather, this is a question posed to our future selves. Perhaps we simply can’t see far enough ahead to get an idea of the consequences of our actions, but my question is what values do we wish to see in our society? Rugged individualism may have worked in the early days, but it led to genocide. Have we gotten over all that? Have we come to the point where we make stars out of those who don’t even pretend to be someone else any more? Maybe I’ve got that wrong—lying and manipulation may well be acting after all. Reagan was among that pantheon. I’m just not sure where Jesus Christ enters the picture.

Take Your Time

PleasuresOfReadingReading is fundamental. Those of us who grew up hearing that slogan have never forgotten it. The part that I wish had stuck better is just a touch shorter: reading is fun. Or it can be. Should be. Alan Jacobs’ little book The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction is like an extended essay on the subject. As a professor of literature, Jacobs has considerable experience encouraging people to read, and in his book he makes a case for reading what you want to read (reading on a Whim, he calls it). Wisely he recognizes that many would-be readers are discouraged by being instructed to read that which they don’t find appealing. I learned quite a lot from the suggestions contained herein, and I’ve been reading so long that I thought I knew pretty much what I needed to know about it. Perhaps the most fundamental issue (apart from reading itself) is that many of us expect to be told what to read. We second-guess our own judgment, feeling we need an expert to tell us how to do it. Like singing in public, it’s intimidating to come across someone better read than oneself. Jacobs advocates reading what gives you pleasure and not worrying about what others think.

Recognizing that readers are spoiled for choice, Jacobs addresses, among other topics, rereading. And taking notes. And reading slowly. I recall speed-reading courses advertised, ironically, on television. At college you could take courses in improving your quota of pages turned. There is a specific kind of reading, as Jacobs notes—reading for information—where this may be helpful. This is different than reading for pleasure, or even reading for understanding. In the case of the Bible (Jacobs taught at Wheaton before moving on to Baylor) many people, he suggests, read for information rather than for understanding. When reading for pleasure taking your time is a virtue. Getting to know a book requires rereading. We need to make time for what is important.

Jacobs makes the point that readers are a minority sect. There have always been fewer of us than there have been of those who don’t read. We are, in his words, a tribe. We can generally spot one another. Those of us who can’t walk past a bookstore will recognize ourselves in the pages of this meditation. Those who spend long hours with books become like them, in some respects. Familiar, layered, and requiring more and more attention. Like the reading that it advocates, this book itself is a delight to read. There is so much in this brief volume that it’s difficult to summarize in the short-form writing that I use on this blog. I found myself wishing for an index so that I might find my favorite passages again. Then I realized that perhaps this absence was intentional. Maybe I’ll have to reread it, taking notes as I go. What a wonderful thought.

Not Quite Dead

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Extinction is a cause of fear. Having evolved a certain level of self-aware consciousness, we fear becoming the next tyrannosaurus-rex or spinosaurus, or whatever the next top predator turns out to have been. We’re here to stay. So we like to think. Data have been known to interfere with comfort zones, however. Take religion, for example. America has always been a religiously diverse “country,” but many people suppose it has a Christian beginning. Moreover, the historically uninformed suppose that generic Christianity to have been Protestantism (which is not really a single religion) and white (which isn’t really a race). Now, it seems, that white Protestantism is slowly going extinct. An article in the Washington Post by John Sides contains an interview with Robert P. Jones of the Public Religion Research Institute. Jones has written a book about the end of this particular hegemony.

Demographics tell the story. The powerful cultural force of the mainstream Protestant churches hasn’t disappeared, and really isn’t likely to become extinct. It has, however, diminished. As soon as we began to embrace technology this was a more or less inevitable trajectory for the human race. We made oceans smaller and came to see that we’d evolved different religions in different regions. And that Christianity wasn’t quite unique as we’d thought. “Orthodoxy” was actually a form of prejudice for a past that may never have been. We saw the writing on the wall and went on scribbling. Making claims the data don’t support.

One of the drivers—and this is a complex phenomenon—behind this shift has been the ossified positions of religions in the light of increased understanding. For example, most people see no problem with homosexuality. They believe shooting someone because of their race is wrong. Women, they radically suggest, should have the same rights as men. The hold-out positions on these issues have historically been religiously based. Just listen to the rhetoric of televangelists and see if it has changed. Meanwhile, the world moves on. Many religions are holding still. Or racing to see if their diminishing number of feet might make the world spin backwards after all.

Religion is a human invention. Many protect themselves by claiming direct revelation by a God who used to live in a glass ceiling above our heads. Trips to the moon, probes to Mars, and out of our solar system have proven that view false. If the view of something as basic as the universe was wrong, what else might’ve been a mistake? Jones’ new book will no doubt cause some panic. Extinction, at least not imminently, doesn’t seem to be in the cards. Protestantism seems to have reached a stasis. Religion still has an important function in society. When it takes the lead on issues of equality, we may begin to see a miracle.

Of the Night

August isn’t too early to start thinking about vampires. The nights are already noticeably longer than they were in June and some leaves are just beginning to change on the trees. I’m thinking of vampires because one of my readers sent me a link to some investigative reporting about the “Highgate Vampire.” I’ve posted about this before, but the brief story, if you don’t have time to browse through my “monster” category, is that beginning in the 1970s a group of people came to believe a vampire haunted London’s Highgate Cemetery. This led to the publication of written accounts of the hunt for the undead. On a trip to London in 2012 I visited the Highgate Cemetery as my host for the trip lived quite close by. Apart from being the resting place of many famous people, the cemetery is moody and Gothic and it’s easy to see how, in days when it was neglected, it could’ve spawned such tales. Thing is, we know vampires don’t exist. So we’re told.

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Back to the story. My reader pointed me to the website Vamped, and now I’m afraid my limited time has just grown more limited. More specifically, there is a story by Erin Chapman entitled “5 Reasons Why a Wampyr Didn’t Walk in Highgate Cemetery.” The article investigates claims made in Sean Manchester’s book on the subject (reviewed elsewhere on this blog), demonstrating that his locations, photographs, and narrative don’t add up. The piece on Vamped shows a meticulous level of detail, comparing notes and photos in a way some of us simply don’t have time to do. Now I’ll sleep more securely on my next visit to London. I hope. The conclusions are disputed.

At this point some may be asking why an educated, rational adult is even addressing such questions. Why worry about something that isn’t even real? This brings to mind the realm of religion. Archetypes, whether they have an objective existence or not, are part of our consciousness. Supernatural beings of many varieties inhabit our heads, no matter how much garlic or holy water we happen to have lying around. Ignoring them can lead to problems. Do I think there is/was a vampire in Highgate Cemetery? I don’t think so. Do some other people sincerely believe it? I have to think yes. No matter which religion people follow, there will be entities that other people don’t believe. That doesn’t mean that they should be ignored. The Highgate Vampire isn’t real for most people, but it is for others. And just in case, I’ll keep a bit of garlic around as the nights begin to grow longer.

Foiled Again

Few things travel as well as curses. Or so it seems in a news report from Serbia. Archaeologists in Kostolac, according to The Guardian, have excavated skeletons nearly two millennia old. That’s not news, since people have been dying as long as there have been people. What makes the find extraordinary are the gold and silver metal foils that have been found at the gravesite. Inscribed in Aramaic with Greek letters, these tiny missives were rolled and placed in lead tubes to be buried with the dead. Although translations of the inscriptions aren’t given, the fact that they contain the names of demons would suggest these might be curses against anyone seeking to disturb the tombs. Such devices go all the way back to the Pharaohs, and perhaps earlier. Nobody likes to have their sleep disturbed.

Serbia, for those unfamiliar with geography, isn’t exactly next door to ancient Aram. The burials and inscriptions seem to fall into the Roman Period, however, a time of cultural diversity. When cultures come into contact—in the case of Rome and prior empires, through conquest—new ideas spread rapidly. And sometimes old ideas. The Romans, in general, didn’t like competing religions. Then again, their idea of religion was somewhat different than ours. Ancient belief systems were more or less run by the state. They served to support political ends—at least they were upfront about it. Your offerings and prayers were to be given in support of the king, or emperor, and beyond that nobody really cared. Unless, of course, you were making curses.

Curses, it was believed, really worked. Even today in cultures where belief in curses persists people tend to be physically susceptible to them. We don’t want others to wish us ill. Perhaps that’s the most surprising thing about politics today. Our society has taken a decided turn towards the more secular. Candidates for political office, even if they personally believe nothing, can still cast curses on those who are different. They can claim support of their “faith” to do so as well. Words, in ancient times, were performative. They meant something. Curses were taken seriously because if someone were serious enough to say it, they probably meant it. They could be written down and preserved beyond death. Today, however, words are a cheap commodity. You can use them to attain your personal ends and discard them once they’ve outlasted their usefulness. Perhaps we do have something to learn from the past after all.

Copper scroll from Qumran, replica. Not a curse, just an illustration.

Copper scroll from Qumran, replica. Not a curse, just an illustration.

Personal Heroes

I’m not inclined toward hero worship. Sometimes I think it must be a personality flaw on my part. The cult of celebrity is so pervasive that I feel desperately behind the times when I read what web-savvy authors write. Or maybe the truth is that my heroes live closer to home. Or lived. I grew up in a small town as the child of a working-class couple, both of whose sets of parents were not educated beyond high school. We were simple folk. We didn’t have much money and we didn’t have elaborate demands. My mother put up with an alcoholic and then absentee father, raising three children largely on her own for the better part of a decade. (She eventually remarried and the three became four, but I want to focus on the early part of the story today.) She had a rough life. Her hero, not surprising for an only girl with four brothers, was her father. Her admiration for him, whether genetic or via learning, passed on to me. I can’t claim to remember him since my grandfather died just before I turned two and just before he turned 75. As I grew up, however, he became my hero.

HomerSitterley

Today would have been his birthday, and I’m thinking about Homer Sitterley, my hero. He grew up on a farm in upstate New York and tried to better his circumstances. He taught in a one-room schoolhouse, which you could do in those days without a college degree. He also met my grandmother in that schoolhouse, which you could also do in those days. He had to change careers and became a civil engineer—still with no degree. He started and supported a family of five and moved around the country trying to keep his spouse happy. Back in the 1920s and ‘30s they moved from Virginia to Montana and back to the east, eventually settling in New Jersey, where my mother was born. They finally moved to Pennsylvania where my three brothers and I were born. He died there in August of 1964.

Homer Sitterley may have never worn a cape like one of his silly grandsons did in college. He didn’t have any super powers beyond the strong will to survive in a hostile and thankless world. He never grew rich despite hard work and few outside his family knew his name. He is a hero nevertheless. His kids were upstanding people: religious, polite, and kind. Their children—my many cousins—are good people. In a world where superheroes are shown increasingly as flawed, the real heroes are simply human. And my personal hero, although he never knew he was—and is—was a man who cared for his family to the very end. He was only human. And all the more heroic for being so.

Simply Complex

What does it mean to be a man? Or a woman? Or intersex? As a society we seem to spend quite a lot of political time thinking about this. We want to regulate something we don’t even understand. An opinion piece by Rabbi Mark Sameth in the New York Times raises this question to a new level. “Is God Transgender?” the title asks. The Bible, which most of the belligerents in this battle claim to follow, doesn’t present as hard and fast a rule on sex as it might seem. As Sameth points out, the language of a number of passages seems “gender confused” and even the gods of olden times could slip from female to male and back. The Ugaritic deity of Athtar could be called Athtart, depending on her or his gender at the time. We human beings prefer our genders to be fixed, but nature doesn’t always agree.

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Not only gender identity, but gender itself occurs on a spectrum. In cases of “ambiguous” gender doctors often make the decision at birth. Gender is assigned, and sometimes made surgically. And lawmakers will use an outdated binary system to assign bathrooms. We make industrial, multi-occupant bathrooms because they’re cheaper. At the same time we raise our children telling them that bathroom use is a private function. Of course, when money’s involved the story changes. We thought we understood what gender was. Like most aspects of life, however, our understanding is only partial. Some species have such complex reproductive techniques that the term “gender” just doesn’t apply. Some species naturally change gender in the course of their lives. Which bathroom should they use? Nature doesn’t support our laws here.

For human beings the experience of gender is no doubt important. More important, it might seem, would be the acceptance of difference. A rainbow doesn’t have sharp divisions of color. Light blurs from one hue to another and we say it’s beautiful. When it comes to sexes we only want two. Black and white. As the rabbi points out, however, nature prefers the rainbow. The acceptance of difference in the face of the evidence would appear to be prudent. But many people read the Bible only on the surface (although even here it’s not as straightforward as it might appear at first). The biblical writers probably thought of gender in binary terms. In those days congenital “defects”—at least those visible to the naked eye—were cruelly set aside as a divine curse. We’re at last learning to see this “curse” as a blessing of diversity. As long as we don’t have to share bathrooms.