Monthly Archives: January 2010

Portrait of an Artist as a Young Woman

The world is a topsy-turvy place. In times of turmoil people turn to the old, the familiar, the classic, for assurance of continuity and stability. Ah, those halcyon days! Perhaps the newspaper is not a place to seek solace, but as I was flipping through the Friday edition, usually a little lighter after the dread of another week, I noticed a story about Leonardo da Vinci (before the code made him famous).

Self portrait or mirror?

For many centuries people have pondered the understated smile on the Mona Lisa’s placid yet knowing face. Recent forensic-type investigations are now strengthening the old suggestion that the Mona Lisa was actually a self-portrait of the artist as a woman. Some will, no doubt, find such news distressing – a masculine artist portraying himself as feminine? (Surely such a thing has never been done before!) Most concerned of all would be the Religious Right, a group that seeks a god excelling in sharp distinctions. Either male or female, no intersexuals need apply!

Over the past several months I have been reading Stephen Asma’s On Monsters, a book that can’t really be called “enjoyable,” although it has been eye-opening and informative. One of the recurrent themes throughout the book has been the fear of the liminal being conjoined with our growing understanding that sharp distinctions are rare. Ever since Freud it has been known (at least subconsciously) that people participate in aspects of both genders with social constructs determining which role is to be filled, feminine or masculine. Those who look honestly at the aggregate of the human race realize that we are all points on a continuum rather than simply members of one or the other gender. As Asma points out, however, we prefer distinctions.

In painting himself as a woman perhaps Leonardo once again proved himself ahead of his time. Perhaps the Mona Lisa is a mirror we should long gaze into before judging others on the basis of artificial distinctions.

Paul Does the Classics

I first became aware of Greek mythology in fifth grade. My teacher in an industrial, rough and yet rural school, believed in the benefits of teaching aspiring drug addicts and laborers the stories of gods and heroes. I immediately adored the stories we heard and read. Raised in a religious household, however, I feared enjoying the tales of what were admittedly pagan gods after all, too much. In the educational topography of my youth, we were on the brink of this brave new electronic world we’ve entered, and mythology was not considered a terribly useful part of the curriculum after that. I left the gods behind. In a class on the Christian Scriptures in college, however, my instructor suggested we all go see Clash of the Titans (the 1981 version) for its appreciative (if a little hokey) presentation of the Greek world. I enjoyed the movie and even took a class in the literature department on mythology.

Over the years I have touched and gone on Greco-Roman mythology while specializing in the mythology of Ugarit. Now that I’m teaching a course on mythology, I’m going back to my classical roots and rereading the stories of times not quite so ancient as the fertile crescent civilizations’, but older than what is considered practical nowadays. While rereading Euripides’ play The Bacchae, the concentration of images, concepts, and actions that recur in the Bible stood out in chiaroscuro. Especially noticeable were references to Paul in the book of Acts.

Like Paul, Dionysus comes to be imprisoned. Not recognized as a divine figure, King Pentheus of Thebes locked him in chains until he could demonstrate that Dionysus is just the wild imaginary figure of repressed women. An earthquake, however, soon rattles the city and Dionysus emerges, chains shed, to the astonishment of Pentheus. The scene reads like Paul and Silas’ escape from jail in Philippi (Acts 16). Admittedly this could be coincidence. A few lines later, however, Dionysus, free from prison, tells Pentheus, “Don’t kick against the goad – a man against a god,” (Act 3, Paul Roche’s translation). Even so, Paul on his way to Damascus sees a vision of a god and is asked, “Why are you persecuting me? It is hard for you to kick against the goads” (Acts 26.14). Perhaps Luke had read his Euripides?

Now I’m no scholar of the Christian Scriptures (although I have taught courses on them a time or two), but when obvious parallels exist it is incumbent upon modern readers to pay attention. The parallels of Dionysus and Jesus were evident to early Christians, so what I noticed was nothing new. When the followers of Dionysus, however, strike a rock with their sticks and water flows out, I wondered if Euripides had read his Torah!

Paul's bedtime reading

The Truth is in Here?

Constantly trawling for the shattered detritus of truth that rests scattered around our lonely little planet, I have often supposed they were here. I have never seen them, but in the Drake Equation there is a high probability that they exist. And now the newspaper says they may have been here all along. And closer than we thought.

Aliens. These latter-day angels and explorers of the cosmos are often pictured like E-T or the little gray aliens from Close Encounters of the Third Kind. The latest findings suggest they could even be quite a bit smaller than that. Paul Davies, a physicist from Arizona State, believes that life may have developed multiple times on earth, and perhaps some of the googol of microbes on our planet may have their origins in space. These potentially extraterrestrial microbes, he stated could be “right under our noses – or even in our noses.” Yikes! Time to put up the intergalactic “No Trespassing” sign!

Stop the alien menace!

In all seriousness, however, this concept of multiple origins of life, I fear, will be latched onto and misread by our Creationist fellow-life forms. I can see the fingers stiff from grasping at straws claiming that now there is scientific proof that different species do have different origins, thank you Mr. Darwin. The price to pay, if they apply logic, however, is not one evolutionary track, but many.

The movie Creation, focusing on Darwin, opened this past weekend in the United States. Delayed because of concerns that Americans can’t handle the truth, this film about Darwin’s sad voyage to the inevitable truth of natural selection will surely raise evangelical ire. Nevertheless, we did not design this world we evolved into, we simply inherited it. And the closer we peer at it, the more complex it becomes. These multiple evolutionary tracks may also explain the origin of Creationists – could they come from different stock than scientifically minded folk? In any case, the news today provides yet another reason to keep our noses clean and our eyes on the skies.

Missing Links

Dinosaurs hold a fascination like few other creatures. Perhaps it is because of their exotic and tragic rise to dominance and their meteoric plummet to obscurity. Maybe it is because of their impossibly creative adaptations to their environment leading to frills, fans, and pointy bits in unexpected places. It might even be that they reveal our own future to us. Whatever the reason, dinosaurs still rule.

In the news yesterday, a man was arrested for stealing a dinosaur. Not a Jurassic Park living model, but a fossil excavated from private land in Montana. A few years back I took my family on a dinosaur-based trip to the west. Trundling across the endlessly flat eastern half of Wyoming, I insisted that we turn down a rutted and washed out dirt road to an obscure site where dinosaur footprints had recently been discovered. Rolling into Red Gulch (seriously!), we were, surprisingly, not the only people there. Staring down at my feet next to the fossilized prints of some ancient carnivore was like feeling the very pulse of evolution. There was no fear of divine retribution here, just a sense of tangible continuity with a long and very distant relative on the tree of life. Creationists insist that dinosaurs and other creatures were each separately created, fearing, I suppose, an interspecies miscegenation, in keeping with their overall fear of sexuality. I was envisioning myself shaking claws with cousin dilophosaurus.

There be monsters here

Over the years we’ve made many dinosaur trips, stopping at dinosaur museums in North and South Dakota, Montana, and Colorado. Once, at Makoshika State Park in Montana, where you can walk along and see dinosaur fossils in situ, we heard a couple exclaim to the flustered park ranger, “but how can that be when the world is only 6000 years old?” Dinosaurs are symbols. They represent the ultimate in stature and environmental dominance, while at the same time hosting brains that struggled to rival a humble grapefruit. As I read the other, more serious, headlines I realize how much we are like our very distant cousins.

Noah in the Underworld

I recently was subjected to the 1940 sci-fi/western film Radio Ranch (a compilation of the series Phantom Empire). This happy-go-lucky story with Gene Autry in his first starring role is a romp through the unbelievable in just about any sense of the word. Based on the premise that there is an underground world called Murania, the film pits Autry against evil scientists who want to get a “bushel load” of radium from Murania, the “Thunder Riders,” or national guard of Murania, and indeed, against his corporate sponsors who will cancel his contract if he ever fails to get to Radio Ranch by 2 p.m. for his singing broadcast! This creative approach to early science fiction will be reincarnated more successfully in The Mole People, a movie that I wrote about a few weeks back.

The connections between the two films do not stop at an underground world with humanoids wearing Egyptian costumes (there is an unmistakable uraeus on the helmet of Argo in Radio Ranch), but go as far as the associations with the Flood Myth. I pointed out the flood connections in my post on The Mole People, and it was startling to note that Radio Ranch begins (and ends) with Gene Autry singing “Uncle Noah’s Ark.” That coincidence is, in itself, barely worth noticing. When the evil scientists invade Radio Ranch, however, they are shown an artifact from the Thunder Riders (whose thunder-producing horses are, admittedly, pretty cool) and they immediately identify it as an “antediluvian” idol. At this point it became clear how deeply embedded the biblical flood story has been in our culture, and how freely it was used in early science fiction films.

At a guest lecture in the Middle East Studies Program at Rutgers on Friday, I mentioned that the flood story goes all the way back to Sumer, making it among the earliest religious stories in the world. Several students had difficulty with this and began asking, “but when was Noah actually alive?” These college students, well educated in science, engineering, or political science, can’t get beyond the biblical literalism they were raised with. It is no wonder that America is falling behind much of the world in science education: we haven’t moved beyond Gene Autry’s overly cheerful belief in a deluge that never occurred.

Book of Eli

Feeling that it is incumbent on a teacher of Bible to stay current with media presentations of my subject, I went to see Book of Eli yesterday. Not really a fan of violent movies, I was a bit concerned about being subjected to gratuitous carnage, but beyond the expected post-apocalyptic context and its attendant, constant menace, there was not too much to worry about on this score. For several years I have been researching the presentation of the Bible in movies. It is my hope to write this research up into a book one day if I ever land a job that allows such a luxury. Book of Eli will deserve a chapter of its own.

Apart from fundie self-praise fests, few movies present the Bible in such a heroic role as it plays in Book of Eli. Eli, like Jake and Elwood, is on a mission from God: to deliver a Bible to the last repository of education in the United States, namely a famous correctional institution. Along the way Road Warrior-style bandits harass him and Carnegie (a kind of deranged librarian with lofty political aspirations) covets Eli’s Bible, the last in existence. Carnegie wants the Bible because, “it is a weapon” of social control. (All quotes are approximate since I couldn’t take effective notes in the dark.) Eli must keep it because of his mission. Along the way Eli explains why the Bible is important to Solara, a young woman who is drawn to his sense of mission and devotion to the book. Explaining that since the last war, all Bibles have been routinely destroyed and that, “some say it [the Bible] is what caused the war,” Eli lovingly wraps the book in a cloth before secreting it in his ubiquitous backpack next to his machete. At this point I could feel the social commentary pressing hard upon me. The Religious Right would love nothing more than to force Armageddon on the planet so that they might go to their wonderful fantasy-land in the sky. Their misreading of the Bible has caused wars in the past and will likely cause them in the future.

As Eli loses the Bible to Carnegie and continues his mission empty-handed he explains to Solara, “I’ve been protecting it [the Bible] so long that I forgot to do what it says.” Again the social commentary was evident as news headlines continue to push hot-button conservative political issues where the heart has been cancerously eaten from the Religious Right and the Bible as idol becomes more important than what it actually says. When Eli brings his mission to its conclusion, however, the viewer is presented with an entirely positive view of the Bible. It is the symbol of civilization in a world of anarchy and Solara marches off as its acolyte into a hostile world as the sun sets in the west.

What is truly remarkable about this film is that it presents the Bible in a way that would make its study cool again (if it ever was). For those of us who’ve spent a lifetime shying away from telling others that we have spent our lives learning about the Bible, we might now walk into the glaring sunshine and have others step back in reverence for our selfless efforts to benefit the human race. Well, at least once the apocalypse is over.

Theophagy, Or How do you Like your God?

Ancient folk did not always want to be close to their gods. It really depended on the kind of god you worshipped. In a gross characterization we might suggest that ancient Assyrians and Babylonians preferred to keep their gods at a cautious distance unless needed. Mesopotamian deities (like their environment) were (was) unpredictable and capricious. And with moody gods, distance is on your side. The ancient Egyptians, on the other hand, with their steady and regular flooding of the Nile, felt that gods were friendly and helpful. It was good to have them near ⎯ indeed, as close as possible.

When it comes a step further than being close to a god, the options seem to be inhaling or ingesting a deity. Inspiration (breathing in) is a familiar enough religious concept today, as is theophagy, or eating deity. Theophagy is a regular practice in many branches of Christianity that believe in transubstantiation or consubstantiation. During these Eucharistic events, the communion elements are believed to either transform into or go along with the body of Christ. Christianity traces this concept to that of animal sacrifice where God was thought to consume the animal (or in very early culture, perhaps the human victim). Somewhere along the line the concept was reversed so that God could be consumed.

In preparing for my mythology class, I was reminded of Hesiod’s Theogany and the story of Cronus eating his children. This episode, dating from the eighth century B.C.E., has a jealous Cronos trying to prevent a takeover on the part of his kids by the extreme parenting measure of swallowing them. Not to worry, however! Zeus manages to be born on Crete and is able to free his siblings from the gut of his dysfunctional father. Cronus’ intention was to stop the gods by eating them while today theophagy is an attempt to absorb the deity. Ancient religions give us insights into modern religions, but only with a generous dose of evolution. It all depends on what you’re trying to accomplish by interacting with the gods.

Cronus has a little snack