Monthly Archives: December 2009

Decade Fail

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.

Is the Truth Under There?

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.

Is the Truth Under There? Tel Dor 1987

Blessed Bovines

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.

Chris-myth

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.

C. S. Lewis, mythographer

Compassion Divine

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?

Birds of a Fang Suck Together

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.

Turn a Priestly Eye

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?