Praying for Rain

Stomping the mud of another county fair off my shoes and doing yet another load of laundry with enough dirt on it to begin my own excavation, I ponder the weather. Although we are daily reminded that we have no effective control of the weather, one of the most common prayers I hear uttered is for “good weather.” I could have done with a little less rain and a bit of broken sunshine with a temperature of 78 and humidity of 20 percent, but I didn’t bother to ask for it. Once at Nashotah House we the faculty (and the student body) were asked to pray for good weather for an outdoor liturgy. I was both bemused and alarmed that a high-ranking priest made that request of us in all seriousness. Perhaps the biggest problem is that, as much as we like to deny it, we are like other creatures considering our immediate environments. We lack the big picture.

Our neglected atmosphere is the key to life on Earth. So immense that it coats our entire planet with the gases we all need to breathe, as well as some gases that have little apparent function in our particular setting, it is a simple matter to take our atmosphere for granted. And yet the weather affects every aspect of our lives. When we ask the Weatherman for an adjustment in our region, we are requesting a graduate-level course of calculations in fluid dynamics to be undertaken just so we can get the right mix of weather conditions for our picnic or day at the beach. Hackneyed to the point of caricature is the rain dance — that ritual that is expected to end a drought.

In the twenty-first century, people who rely on science to keep them safe from severe weather by predicting hurricanes and tornadoes with accuracy still pray for the weather they want in their little corner of the globe. If watching Jurassic Park taught me anything, it was that a butterfly flapping its wings in China might cause rain in New York. Chaos theory has demonstrated the intricate connections between all components of a complex system. The atmosphere is one of the most complex systems on earth (well, around the earth, actually). Rev. Chuck’s church picnic weather is integrally tied up with typhoons that may be drowning thousands of people in low-lying coastal regions of Asia. And yet we just can’t resist asking for the weather to tip in our favor. In the Bible it worked for Elijah, so why shouldn’t it still work for us?

Biblical Black Lagoon

During my summer-term courses I feel it is only fair to break the lecture time up a bit. Rutgers summer courses can run four hours at a stretch, and no matter how valiant the student, no one can pay attention to me for that long. I have long had an interest in the Bible in popular media, so for each class session I show a brief clip of a movie that features the Bible, often in a pivotal role. We then discuss how it is presented. As a personal pork barrel I give the students a multiple choice question on their exams as to which movies we have watched (it also gives them incentive to be in class, I hope). One summer, after sending the exam off to the print office, I realized I’d made a mistake. As usual, my interest in 1950s sci-fi flicks led to trouble. One film I hadn’t shown a clip from, and which I thought was Bible free (I hadn’t seen it in a long time) was The Creature from the Black Lagoon, a perennial favorite for both camp and kitsch.

Of course, The Creature from the Black Lagoon does have the Bible in it. The movie begins with a narrator reading Genesis 1.1. Well, I had to give all the students credit for that question, because there was no wrong answer. Nevertheless, the easy association between beginning the film with the Bible and its evolutionary plot-starter seemed worthy of comment. Back in the 1950s evolution was already a hot-button issue (so I’ve read). Forces lined up on the scientific and biblical fronts faced off like angry hockey players as they swung at that hard black puck of the truth. It does seem odd in a country so heavily reliant on science that the foundation of biology and its benefits (if scientists hadn’t recognized and reacted to the swift evolution among microbes I’d likely not be here typing this sentence) that one particular interpretation of a very small section of the Bible should have the power that it does. I’ve seen carnivorous, chrome-plated bumper Jesus fish eating the peacefully walking Darwin fish! Old metaphorical Moses would be scratching his head, I’m sure.

The Creature was, of course, also a metaphor (if I’m not shoveling out too much credit where it isn’t really due). The sequels to the original film grew progressively worse, but those who have the patience to sit through The Creature Walks Among Us discover that the gill-man is a man after all, under all that green rubber. The beast is us. Not too weighty of a revelation to be sure, but it isn’t too weighty a movie. Like any discriminating Bible reader I choose what to accept and what to explain away. When I watch The Creature from the Black Lagoon, it ruins the story for me to think ahead to the denouement of the gill-man being a real man. It is a passage I simply choose not to accept. (This is, of course, a metaphor.)

What might this be a metaphor for?

What might this be a metaphor for?

Memento Mori

This is the end, my friend, my only friend, the end

This is the end, my friend, my only friend, the end

Those of you who’ve listened to my podcasts have no doubt noticed my reference to George Pendle’s, Death: A Life (Three Rivers Press, 2008). This fictitious account of Death’s memoir, all things considered, is a fun read and a wild romp through various ancient religions. Postulating a loveable, if somewhat obtuse, God (no more obtuse, however, than the supreme being in Harold Bloom’s Book of J) Pendle populates his mythological world with a vast array of embodiments, personifications and supernatural beings, all slightly neurotic, and more or less on an equal playing field. Although the book is intended as fun, it does offer some serious consideration to the phenomenon of death.

One of the earliest intimations that Homo sapiens had begun to consider religious sensibilities is burial, the concomitant state to death. Burial serves an important biological function of preventing the diseases borne of putrefaction from infecting others, but it also serves as a condensed statement of a fledgling belief in an afterlife in some form. Even Neanderthal burials have been discovered with rudimentary grave goods. Concern for the wellbeing of the departed is surely a religious sentiment. Death and religion are never far from each other. Even the early Mesopotamians trembled at the etemmu, their version of a ghost, and marked it with the divine determinative on their clay tablets. Religion has been a fine-turned handle that humans have used to get a grip on death.

That is not to say, of course, that death is religion’s only concern, but there is some wisdom in that old saying that people seek out their religious leaders when they are “hatched, matched, and dispatched.” Mesopotamian (and Hebrew Bible, for that matter) afterlife was a gloomy prospect, yet it was certainly brighter than the alternative of the simple cessation of biological functions. Death as a concept inserts meaning into the all-too-natural act of dying. Not a religion exists that does not address itself to this great leveler of all human aspirations. If at times it seems that my posts tend toward the macabre, peopled with vampires, werewolves, zombies and Republicans, bear in mind that such creatures of the night are expressions of the essentially human and indisputably religious preoccupation with death. Its unbeating heart transfuses life to religion.

This Fair’s for the Goats

“County fair, county fair, Everybody in town’ll be there, So come on, hey we’re goin’ down there …” Thus begins the chorus of Bruce Springsteen’s little-known song “County Fair.” (It is one of the bonus tracks on The Essential Bruce Springsteen.) The haunting melody of what might otherwise be a carefree summer song is enhanced by the fact that my wife has been staffing a couple of 4-H County Fair booths over the past weeks and I don’t get to see much of her with the long hours. While at a recent fair she pointed something out to me that, not having much experience on a farm, I had never known. Abattoirs employ goats in a specialized animal herding role. The animals in a stockyard, usually sheep or cattle, get familiar with the goat and learn to follow it. The goat is trained to lead them to their deaths while it is spared. The industry term for this animal is a Judas Goat.

It's a goat's life

Slaughter House Rock

Although the origin of the name is obvious, the practice strikes me as insidious, if justifiably biblical. Training an ignorant animal to lead more gullible animals to their premature demise — it sounds a little too much like Pat Robertson to me! Is this sending in a goat to do a man’s job? Then to saddle the poor creature with the title of Judas, as if the poor thing planned it! Yet another reason to be glad I’m a vegetarian!

The Bible is pervasive in and paradigmatic for our culture. I might even term it endemic. As many children grow up without the biblical force-feeding that many of those in my generation had, these images and metaphors may eventually go extinct. Or perhaps there will always be a goat to lead them back to a Bibliophile culture. The county fair itself might be instructive. Originally instituted in Roman times as periods of relaxation from labor (rather pointless for those of us not gainfully employed), fairs evolved into opportunities for individuals and companies to display their wares and goods. From a practical point of view there is little you can see at the fair that you can’t find quicker or cleaner on the internet. But the internet lacks that human element. Perhaps we are really all just glad to go with the crowd sometimes without even asking where the goat is leading us.

The Divine Finger

As the thunderstorms break out overhead yet once again, I am naturally reminded of tornadoes. I grew up in a part of the country relatively free from natural disasters. In my little corner of western Pennsylvania we felt secure from the earthquakes, volcanoes, wildfires, mudslides, and hurricanes that seemed to plague other parts of the continent. Then one night a tornado came. I happened to be a few hundred miles from home working a summer job when the cheery newscaster announced that a tornado had swept through my hometown during the severe thunderstorms we’d had the night before. I had always believed our unrelenting hills made us somewhat resistant to the tornadoes that plagued our next-door neighbor Ohio. It was probably then that my fascination with severe weather, especially the tornado, began.

Pulling the divine plug?

Pulling the divine plug?

One of the reasons for the entirely understandable fear accompanying tornadoes is that they have all the hallmarks of an ideal divine weapon. In an article soon coming out in Maarav, I argue that an obscure Hebrew word should probably be associated with whirlwinds rather than tumbleweeds. Although violent tornadoes are rare in Israel, the story of Elijah seems to imply that a weighty prophet may be hefted skyward by a whirlwind, and that sounds tornadic to me! There are passages where whirling winds are referenced as harbingers of divine wrath, an association that clings to tornadoes even today. I ended up writing an entire book on weather terminology in the Bible that had been fueled on by this ambiguous fascination. Publishers, it seems, alas, do not share my enthusiasm for the topic.

Classic F-5

Classic F-5

The popular media, however, shows a glimmer of understanding. The second half of the 1990s (when I finished my draft of my book/doorstop) was a bonanza of American storm fascination; Sebastian Junger’s The Perfect Storm (1997) was shortly followed by Erik Larson’s Isaac’s Storm (1999) and both tailed the much-touted movie Twister (1996). Being somewhat of a connoisseur of tornadoes, I was disappointed by Twister, but one scene remained scoured into my memory. A layman asks one of our overly-folksy, lovable storm-chasers what an F-5 tornado (the F-, or Fujita-scale is the measure of a tornado’s intensity based on the level of damage it leaves behind — 5 is the highest number on the scale) would be like. One of our jocular heroes becomes suddenly serious and replies, “The finger of God!” Despite the cornball, this is an accurate explanation of the awe that surrounds a storm as random as a tornado. Adjacent houses can suffer entirely different fates in a tornado, or, in a poignant story I’ve never forgotten, a Wisconsin tornado killed one of a set of young twins in the same house during the storm. Finger of God, indeed. If Moses had lived in Iowa I’m sure he would have made liberal use of the tornado for precisely that image.

The Devil in the Deep Blue Sea

The latest podcast is now up and running. This is a discussion of Leviathan and the ambivalent outlook on water in the ancient world.

Surfs up!

Thy Will Bee Done

Today I had to do battle against the bees. That’s the way I must steel myself for the task of mass specieocide. Watching those little tiny creatures struggling, kicking their six legs and antennae into the air, trying to get the poison off is heartrending to me. They are, after all, only trying to do whatever it is that yellow-jackets do. But it is a heat wave right now, and without central air we need to open windows as much as possible, and today they tried to invade people air space. I had to do something. So standing over the carnage of an Ezekielian valley of damp exoskeletons, I recalled the bees of the Bible. (May their entomological souls rest in peace.)

Bees are one of the more innovative weapons in the divine arsenal. They are used to chase people away, like God’s little army of armored stinger missiles. And as in any arms race, it is numbers that count. Hundreds of them to the one human being holding a putrid can of chemicals trying to defend home against their incursions. In the book of Judges, the one prominent female judge is Deborah. Her name translates to “bee.” She is the bane of the Canaanites. So much so that general Barak (“lightning”) refuses to go to war without her. Bees were a potent curse in ancient times as well, strong enough to drive a family from their home.

Bee careful around this one, because love hurts!

Bee careful around this one, because love hurts!

A Sumerian cylinder seal depicts what appears to be a divine scene with a killer bee goddess (not an Africanized killer bee, but a slang killer bee). One wonders what the worshippers must be thinking. Perhaps they too had watched Phase IV when they were kids! Bees could also be benevolent. Honeybees provided a rare treat before sugarcane had been discovered, and even Israel’s “promised land” flowed with milk and honey. So like most of life, bees were ambiguous. They bore all the markings of the divine: a wonderful sweet residue, nice trendy color scheme, but a painful sting that could even be fatal. Gifts of the gods are like that. So no matter how humane my temporary solution may be, I still feel like I’m taking on the gods.