In a recent newspaper report on the state of the nation, local journalist Tom Moran cites a Pew survey in which most Americans surveyed rated the current and swiftly ending decade as the worst one of their lives. As a professional academic who was ousted from a highly rated, long-term teaching post this decade after a Fundamentalist takeover of the school where I taught, I am inclined to agree. Five years later I am still searching for any kind of meaningful full-time work, while yesterday I spied an ad for a “Ghost Twitterer” (as if someone is so important that they can’t write their own 140 daily words) and bowed my head in sorrow. Maybe we really have sunk to a new low.
What really caught my eye, however, was the statement of a fellow professor at Rutgers (where I have been an adjunct for nearly three years). Ross Baker noted that “It has always taken calamities of almost Biblical proportions to shake this country out of its smugness and complacency.” While I agree with his assessment, the use of the phrase “biblical proportions” demonstrated once again that my chosen field of specialization has a solid place in the popular imagination. Generally “biblical proportions” is a phrase used to refer to disasters, something along the magnitude of a world-wide flood, the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, or the plagues of Egypt. These mythological episodes have left a deep impression on our culture that the message of the Bible is a fitting one for the first decade of the twenty-first century.
Perhaps we are really in trouble if this facile view of the Bible is wedded to a facile misuse of the same book for constructing prejudicial public policies and ill-conceived conservative “reforms.” If the past decade has been a wash in this country, I would attribute it to a conservative evangelical political machine that churned out a president who literally would have been pleased to bring on the mythical Armageddon. During this bushesque reign of biblical proportions, I lost a secure job teaching Bible and haven’t been able to find any other full-time work. I would continue my rant but I have to polish up my résumé, and hone my succinctness skills, and try for a Ghost Twitterer position.
Each semester I introduce my Hebrew Bible students to the dangers of “biblical archaeology.” Not that there is any wrong-headedness in excavating sites of importance to ancient Israel, but I warn them of requiring proof for religious beliefs. Early archaeologists digging in the lands of the Bible were open about their agendas — “proving” the Bible to be “true.” The problem is proof is certain only in mathematics, not in matters of faith. Truth cannot be known, but must be believed. When archaeologists excavate the unknown, they cannot know in advance what they might find.
As a young academic wannabe, I volunteered at Tel Dor in the summer of 1987. Before the introductory orientation sessions Dor was only a shadow of a reference to one of King Solomon’s administrative cities mentioned in 1 Kings; I knew nothing of its location or importance. I’d had enough of seminary to be skeptical of many truth claims even then, and the irreverent outlook of many of my fellow diggers underscored the secular nature of the venture. We were digging for the truth, but we might not recognize it when we found it. Apart from the scorpions and tarantulas, we unearthed many mute trinkets from Israelites silenced by time. My square team was assigned to the city gate; we were seeking the coveted fourth chamber to place the city in a Solomonic context.
To the best of my knowledge, our humble efforts did not prove the Bible was true. After manually hauling out tons of dirt, we found what appeared to be a gate chamber and perhaps even a rubbish heap. Of these two features the rubbish heap was the more interesting to me. Here it was that the cast-offs of ancient life had been consigned to oblivion only to be rescued by bewildered strangers far in the future. Truth is often in what we hide. It may not be glamorous or worthy of biblical paeans, but it is that part of our lives that we discard. Finding “Solomon’s” gate proved nothing, but what “his” people threw away contained nuggets of the truth.
In perhaps one of the greatest ironies of history, throughout the Ancient Near East, cattle were currency. The entire system of fair exchange is based on what humans deem to be valuable — gold is not inherently of more worth than iron. We choose to agree on such value systems and the chosen material becomes a means of trade. In the Bible, before coinage evolved, wealth was measured in animal possession. The rancher with the largest herd was the richest person around. This should be familiar to readers of the Bible, and it is attested in the surrounding cultures of the Near East as well. Even in Egypt, which has the reputation of looking down on cow-pokes (see Genesis 46), bovines were sacred. The apis bull and the usual representation of the goddess Hathor attest to that.
Wikipedia's prized gnu cow
In reading the Iliad over the last few days, the value of cattle among the ancient Europeans also stands out. War prizes from Troy and other conquests are often valued in terms of how many cattle they are worth. Even captured human prizes are symbolically weighed against their worth in moo. The sacrifice that gods appreciate most is that of the beefy variety, although the small-scale farmer may only be able to spare a caprid; when the gods are showing temper, throw another steak on the divine grill and all will be well. It would be difficult to find a stronger religious continuum in antiquity than the pacifying value of bovine sacrifice.
Bovine worship gone crazy
One of the lesser recognized features of our ancient ancestors’ bovine-fixation is found in our own alphabet. Writing began with pictographic symbols representing their referents. Since cattle were so important, their characteristic visage made up a frequently utilized symbol. As cuneiform developed, drawing was replaced by wedge-shaped writing on clay, and the bovine head was represented as a series of wedges and lines. When the inhabitants of ancient Aram (very roughly our Syria) devised their non-cuneiform alphabet, the very first letter was an ox head. The Greeks turned our abstract cow onto its horns and gave the world its alpha, a form that survives in Western scripts today as a Latin capital A. In this industrialized age when, unless they go to the 4-H fair, many people never even see a real cow, every time we tap out messages on our keyboards, we still acknowledge the sacred bovine.
Mythology is beyond any single individual. I was reminded of this recently while discussing Joseph Campbell with a colleague. Joseph Campbell was an unconventional academic who exploded to public prominence largely through the immense influence of Star Wars, the original episode. George Lucas had famously latched onto Campbell’s Jungian use of archetypal imagery as the basis for good story-telling, and thus, by extension, good movie-making. With his books written at a level that is accessible to the average reader, Campbell assured his fame in a world starved for mythology. Others have interpreted mythology quite differently, but often more quietly. The fact is, mythology is alive and well in our culture. We simply fail to recognize it.
Joseph Campbell, mythographer
We are in the midst of the Christmas season, a period of intense mythopoeia in modern American culture. As can be seen in the Christmas Complex essay under the Full Essays section of this blog, the growth of Christmas characters and stories has been intense over the past several decades, and it shows no sign of slowing. Although not everyone will recognize Heat Miser or Zwarte Piet, many cannot imagine Christmas without Frosty the Snowman or Jack Frost, although they are not specifically associated with the holiday. This is the nature of mythology – it grows to encompass the many concomitant features of its immediate culture. Northern European and northern American experience of Christmas includes the snows of winter, so they become part of the Christmas myth.
While many this year, and every year, protest leaving the “Christ” out of “Christmas,” they fail to recognize that the snowballing Christmas myth has rolled far beyond the control of Christianity. The origins of Christmas predate Christianity, and the birth of Jesus is yet another element that has adhered to the mythology of the winter solstice. As the days grudgingly grow longer, and light begins to return into the chillingly crystalline days of January in the northern part of the northern hemisphere, mythological souls everywhere breathe a sigh of relief. Our fear of the long, dark, cold night is primal and very deep. C. S. Lewis, another mythographer, at least got it right with the Narnian concept of winter without Christmas being a kind of hell to northerners. The mythology of Christmas in the southern hemisphere is another complex mythopoeia in the making. How it grows will be an interesting exercise in the ongoing human quest for meaning as summer’s heat is just beginning.
A very generous relative graced this holiday season with the gift of the first season of Star Trek, the original television series. I am not now, nor have I ever been, a “trekkie.” I did, however, enjoy the show as a child and have come to appreciate it even more as an adult. I can’t cite episode and scene like a trekkie can, and a surprise FBI raid would not turn up any pointy Spock ears or a model phaser (although my wife’s cell-phone looks like a sophisticated communicator). As a child the show appealed to my love of science fiction, and as an adult the morality play aspect of the original series fascinates me. Yesterday we watched an early episode where a crew member has his mind boosted by a trip beyond the edge of the galaxy (a la Forbidden Planet). As this character becomes more and more omniscient and powerful, he refers to himself as a god. Captain Kirk, in his attempt to stop his old friend calls out that gods are marked by compassion rather than strength.
I have been rereading Homer’s Iliad in preparation for a course on mythology. Quite apart from the fact that Star Trek borrowed heavily from classical mythological themes, one of the features I have especially picked up on in this reading has been the appeals to the compassion of the gods. As Diomedes, Odysseus, and Ajax (and finally Achilles) battle Hector and Paris both sides call out for the kindness of Zeus, appealing to his compassion (as well as to his baser instincts). Reflecting the ancient perception of the world, Zeus’ responses are fickle.
Biologists have been probing the origins of human sympathies ever since Darwin. Creationists used to argue that compassion, altogether lacking in the animal world, could not have evolved naturally. Many recent studies, however, have demonstrated a naturalistic base for our altruism and compassion. These traits are certainly displayed in a number of animal species, particularly mammals. The ancient Egyptians believed animals to be superior to humans in many respects, lacking our weaknesses and being more adept at survival. It seems that they were right and some of the nobler human traits evolved from our animal milieu. If so, what is divinity beyond the gospel according to Star Trek — compassion to those in need by those who find themselves in positions of power?
It reads like a cross between a Hitchcock movie and a Lovecraft story — paleontologists have unearthed a fanged bird fossil from the Cretaceous Era. Despite the cartoonish images this news flashes into my head, the startling find also suggests that this turkey-sized predator was also venomous. The first known ancestor to the avian family that used poison to immobilize its victims. A venomous bird.
Don’t let the cherubic Sinornithosaurus fool you! (From Wiki Commons)
Martin Luther is rumored to have said that you can’t prevent birds from flying over your head, (but you can prevent them from nesting in your hair). This new discovery suggests that there might be poisonous birds hovering around out there. And of course, Creationists must make room on the ark for this extraordinary creature. Since all critters, according to Genesis, were on the ark, our Sinornithosaurus must have lurked in some dark corner. I wonder how old Noah classified them — were they nestled among the birds or were they roaming about in the dinosaur wing? These toothy pterosaur wannabes were closely related to the velociraptors and microraptors that once served as the tetrapod mosquitoes of the Cretaceous Park world, stealth biters who’d glide down upon you undetected. The Creationists railing against transitional forms are scratching their theologically inclined heads.
I welcome the discovery like an early holiday gift. Although no one will ever see a living poisonous reptilian turkey soaring down from a Cretaceous canopy, we can all wonder and imagine. Fangs bared, venom dripping, it drops into our comfortable world and makes us reconsider. Apparently poisonous birds did not make the evolutionary cut, but I, for one, will be keeping a closer eye on the sky when I’m out in the woods or jogging around town early in the morning.
In the local newspaper today there are two stories involving priests and money. One focuses on a British priest, the other on an American priest. The story on page 6 states that a priest in England is receiving harsh criticism for having stated in sermon that the desperately poor are morally justified in shoplifting to survive. He added that this should only apply to large chain stores and not small, family-run businesses. On page 11 is the story of an American priest who won $100,000 in a televised poker tournament. Since the money is being given to the parish it is a light-hearted human-interest story.
What I find disturbing in all of this is the larger message. Yes, priests need to be involved in the financial affairs of the world — we’ve created a culture so focused on money that it is impossible to avoid it. Yet the distinct tone of the news stories is telling. The priest advocating shoplifting to save the poor is suspect since he challenges modern mores of property ownership. The Bible advocates landowners leaving some of their hard-earned crops for the destitute to glean. The priest who won an enormous pot playing a game is simply a creative individual raising church funds in new ways. The Bible states nothing about gambling for money. Somehow I can’t reconcile the two stories.
Everyone feels the economic pinch in hard times, but few in our society really know what it means to experience true deprivation. Would it not be better if the church could devise a system that ensured fair allocations of resources without having to advise petty theft or playing one’s cards close to the clerical collar?
By strange coincidence I had two friends ask about syncretism over the last few days. As generally understood, syncretism refers to the blending of religions. In the ancient world when one culture came into contact with another inevitable sharing resulted. Since all religions at the time were polytheistic, there was no concern about sharing deities too. Ancient people wanted to assure their good fortunes and survival just like modern folk do, and so the safest course of action when you become aware of a new deity is to placate her or him. There are few risks at worshipping additional gods in a polytheistic system, since all deities thrive on adoration. Some ancient societies, such as that of the Mesopotamians, realized that the number of gods could grow well beyond reasonable proportions. After all, many kinds of phenomena had gods, including the natural world, human inventions, and the cosmos. Recognizing overlap between the roles or functions of certain deities they began to draft up lists equating the various gods. Some of these lists are quite extensive.
This is the practice of syncretism. Your Yarikh is my Sin, and why offer two sacrifices when one will suffice? Ancient worshippers did not worry about the endless confusion that this would cause for future monotheistic scholars rediscovering their lost civilization. James Frazer, of Golden Bough fame, was a Victorian scholar who saw syncretism everywhere. Ancient cultures became a melting pot with countless variations on every theme. With more sophisticated anthropological methods Frazier’s work eventually fell into disfavor, and syncretism with it. Each ancient culture was distinct, with nuances and subtleties unguessed by rampant blending and blurring of the lines. Some scholars today shy away from the word syncretism since it has such unholy associations.
Fallen Saint James George Frazer
Part of the issue is where our culture stands. We are not the final word in discovery or understanding of our world, and yet monotheistic religions, the majority position in the western hemisphere, make absolute claims. Those of us who examine ancient religions are born into these outlooks, assured that modern-day religion is the true religion and that it, unlike other aspects of culture, will cease to evolve. Religion, however, changes as soon as it leaves its founder’s mouth or hand. The multiplicity of human perceptions and outlooks assures us that each believers’ religion is unique. We may be ashamed by the implications, but syncretism, it seems, will always have the last laugh.
While snowbound over the weekend, I reread William Golding’s Lord of the Flies. I recalled a profound sense of awe from when I read it the first time in college, when students are invincible and optimistic. The second reading was still rewarding, but the message seemed darker, more true-to-life. Children on an isolated island devising their own schemes of democracy cannot repress the deep urge for self-advancement. When it comes to working together for the common good or promoting one’s own will, the latter wins out and seeks to destroy all dissenters. Anarchy becomes their natural state.
A few weekends ago I finally got around to watching V for Vendetta, the Wachowski Brothers’ dim and hopeful dystopia where individual conviction wears away at a conformity that benefits the privileged class. Recasting Guy Fawkes as a hero, albeit a tragic one, is a bold move in the post 9/11 world. The anarchy here leads to a rule by consent, the oppressed rising up as one to say “no more.” Even V is dead so there is no one to lead.
Anarchy is a frightening prospect. Most people feel more comfort in the rule of law. One time I joined a discussion my brother-in-law was having with some friends on the rule of law. They were suggesting that if rule of law could be brought to bear on the Middle East then the seemingly continual crisis there might terminate. I disagreed from the far end of the table, not close enough to hear the whole conversation. My rationale is that the utter conviction of religion trumps the rule of law. Rule of law assumes all are equal, but religion in a monotheistic theater always assumes only one is right, and therefore superior. All others must submit. Problem is, many monotheistic religions feel the same way. We see it in the extreme power structure of the Religious Right in this country. Who is willing to say maybe the rule of law is superior to the rule of God? Watching the graceful anarchy of V, and reading the disturbing anarchy of Lord of the Flies, sometimes even the most stalwart free-thinker wishes everyone would bow to the rule of law.
As a kid Saturday afternoon was devoted to the science fiction repertoire offered to B-movie connoisseurs on commercial television. There were only about a dozen channels in those days and one of the local Pittsburgh stations had the demographic of teenage boys’ viewing habits down to a science. Now that people tell me I’m grown up, although they won’t give me a full-time job, the temptation is there to let the television do the thinking for me. Actually, I only allow myself to watch TV on the weekends; it never gets turned on until Friday night. The rest of the time is spent getting ready for classes or looking for jobs.
Anyway, yesterday I decided to watch I movie I first saw as a tween (“kid” as they were called in those days), The Incredible Shrinking Man. The Christmas tree was set up and decorated and the snowstorm scheduled to bury the East Coast was doing its job quite well. So I settled in to remember old times. I’ve mentioned before the mild social criticism of 1950s sci-fi, and seeing this film as an adult yielded the same results. When Scott Carey realizes he’s shrinking, the doctors figure out that he had been exposed to radiation — a perennial plot device in Cold War movies — and the various creatures of the natural world become deadly threats. His cat, and, of course, the basement spider, both try to kill him.
Then, as the realization dawns that he will eventually shrink down to nothingness, Carey reflects how the infinite and infinitesimal are the “ends of a circle.” And in a movie where the divine is not previously invoked, he ends his relentless deflation by narrating, “To God there is no zero. I still exist.” When technology (medical science) and human help (his wife stays with him until he is the size of a cockroach, and only leaves when she believes the cat ate him) fail, the 1950s audience falls back on God. Theologians call this thinking “God of the gaps,” where God, the ultimate deus ex machina, is used to explain what human reason can’t yet figure out. It is still prevalent in Fundamentalism and most forms of contemporary Christianity. If belief in God relies on having unexplained phenomena, the question of who is shrinking becomes challenging indeed.
Today we put up our Christmas tree. As we drove home with it strapped to the roof our car yesterday we felt like pariahs since everyone else in New Jersey seems to have collected their tree a week or two before Thanksgiving. I have spent too long among Episcopalians to appreciate such eager chomping at the bit. At Nashotah House Christmas trees were discouraged until about Christmas Eve, since a hearty Advent celebration was considered a sign of true piety. Well, with a small child in those days, we didn’t care to deprive our daughter of the childhood anticipation of Christmas, so we received the ugly stares due to those so uncouth as to set up a tree a week in advance. Now people think we procrastinate to wait until the weekend before Christmas to set up our interior conifer.
A few years back I wrote a book on holidays for teenagers. I haven’t found a publisher yet, but I did quite a bit of research that I’d rather not waste. Sometime soon I will post the Christmas section under Full Essays. It is chock-full of traditions and facts and impressions about Christmas and what it has come to mean to us today in the United States, but since today is tree day for us, I thought I’d start out with a little of the story of the humble Christmas tree:
The modern use of Christmas trees can be traced directly back to Germany in the 1500s. The earliest written reference comes from 1570 when a fir tree was set up in guild houses and decorated with apples, nuts, pretzels, and small things for kids. On Christmas Day the kids of the guild members could come and take the hanging gifts. The apples may go back to plays in the Middle Ages with Adam and Eve; sometimes plays of the Garden of Eden had apples hung on a fir tree. A tradition says that Martin Luther, the monk who started the Protestant movement (the Reformation) was walking home one winter night when he saw the stars twinkling through the branches of the pines. He set a tree up in his house, the story goes, lit with candles, to try to recreate the effect.
We do know that the Christmas tree (originally Tannenbaum) was a German invention. Until the 1800s it was almost completely limited to Germany. Candles were used to light the trees – talk about your obvious fire hazard! Royalty from other European countries were presented with Christmas trees as a novelty in the 1800s. Soon other well-to-do families started to set them up. An engraving of Queen Victoria in England with a tree from her German husband Prince Albert captured the public imagination and Christmas trees became the rage in England. Charles Dickens took over and the rest is history.
A trite truism we are often subjected to states that Christmas is really for the kids. As I suggested earlier in this blog, adults also see the benefits in a holiday break, and many adults experience Christmas like kids. But how do children experience the holidays, really?
Two unrelated news stories this week demonstrate the breadth of childhood holiday experience. Last week an 8-year old boy in Massachusetts was sent home from school for a drawing. The teacher asked the students to make a Christmas drawing (a bit of December dilemma there!), and this boy drew Jesus on the cross. Well, that could be a simple holiday mix-up, an Easter Bunny in Santa’s sleigh. The problem arose when the boy said it was himself on the cross, with x’s for eyes. The boy’s father reported that they had recently visited a Catholic shrine with obvious crucifixes, and the boy seems to have thought Christmas was somehow associated with death.
A second story comes from Tennessee where a 4-year old boy was picked up outside, drinking beer and wearing a stolen dress from under a neighbor’s Christmas tree. After being treated for his condition, the boy was released to his mother who said that he was trying to get arrested to be with his father in jail. Christmas is family time, after all.
Perhaps the warm and cozy stories of animals placidly staring into a mysteriously glowing feed trough are the stuff of adult fancy. Maybe these children see the holidays in their unmasked guise — wish fulfillment in a world that is just not what it should be.
Juxtapositions fascinate me. As a former editor I notice the layout of stories on a page knowing that word counts, subject matter, photo sizes, and general interest all play into the placement of material. I recently posted an entry on Sacraments and Sea Cucumbers that had been suggested by such an editorial flourish. Yesterday’s paper wafted another such epiphany.
By now everyone knows that televangelist Oral Roberts died on Tuesday. Although he pioneered much of what is now recognized as televangelism, his true motives were clear when the money began piling up. I’m not the judge of his religious sincerity, but his ministry was a multi-million dollar enterprise, and he even founded a “university” named after himself. Meanwhile, housebound octogenarians on limited incomes gladly sent him their money to continue his good work. There is a very substantial profit to be made in preaching to the choir. All televangelists know that.
Immediately beneath the Oral Roberts story in the New Jersey Star-Ledger was a much more fascinating story about the veined octopus. Biologists have long known that octopi use large shells and other natural detritus for shelter. Octopi had been known to use coconut halves for that purpose as well. What is new in this story is that veined octopi have been observed collecting coconut halves (often discarded by human gatherers), emptying them out, and moving them to a place where two halves can be made into a neat shelter, thereby demonstrating a more advanced brain structure than most televangelists. In short, these invertebrates are utilizing tools. It is only a short step on the way to octopus televangelists, but if they know how to gather their valuables, this development can’t be far behind.
Podcast 18 considers the perceptions of the world of the dead, according to Ancient Near Eastern sources. Specifically the question addressed is can the dead return from the underworld, based initially on the story of Samuel’s return from the dead in the Bible — this leads to a description of the underworld based on ancient sources. The Zoroastrian connection is encountered in the development of the realms of heaven and hell.