Monthly Archives: February 2010

Childhood Never Ends

Yesterday’s 8.8 earthquake in Chile has people asking once again what has angered the almighty. Guilt, unassuaged by human suffering, accompanies natural disasters around the world. This perspective is nothing new, but rather an inherited burden from our cultural forebears who believed gods to be perpetually vindictive or indifferent to people, and who would strike out without warning. One of Poseidon’s favored titles in Homer is “earth-shaker.” When something as stable as the very planet rocks, the gods must be angry.

Psychologists have long delved into the all-too-human reaction of guilt to momentous occasions. Guilt is also generally recognized as a universal human emotion, occasionally supposed to be in evidence among the great apes. Perhaps our primate progenitors were born with an innate sense of having wronged the powers that be, for like children we still cry out for deliverance from blizzards, hurricanes, wild fires, volcanoes and earthquakes. No matter how much we grow up, we never outgrow our sense of having angered that great parent in the sky.

Science has revealed to us a natural world with physical causes. We know that massive plates of the earth’s crust rub past each other as they float on a hellish, viscous ocean of molten rock. We know that incredible stresses and pressures find release in the freeing jolts of earthquakes. This we know, but we find the concept more frightening that we are the victims of nature than the fantasy that we are victims of God. Better to put a human face, albeit an angry one, on natural disasters since we may at least beg for mercy.

There is no divine “why” to such disasters. Even the Bible affirms that things just happen sometimes with no divine intentionality. As this artificial world we constructed shivers from natural forces we are led by natural feelings to irrational conclusions that empower us. We are children looking for an absent parent. And Poseidon, it seems, evaporated long ago.

Never trust a god with a fork!

Holi Holidays

I am the first to admit that I know far too little about Indian religions. As I teach Ancient Near Eastern religions every year, it becomes clear that much of our own modern, western religious tradition owes a debt of gratitude to the ancient traditions of the Far East. Zoroastrianism, substantially connected to early Indic religions, had an immense impact on the major monotheistic faiths that grew out of the ancient Near East.

So it was that I was pleased to see a story in the local paper about the upcoming Hindu festival of Holi. I know little about this festival other than it includes a celebration of color. Having grown up a little too attached to television, a device that was black-and-white in those days, I have retained my fascination with color and the emotion and power it conveys. When color television came to our home, it was an epiphany. Reading about human cognitive development it is impossible to ignore the impact color has on Homo sapiens and their outlook on the world. A master film-maker may convey depth and feeling in the absence of color, but once color is added, the story becomes vibrant. I took my family to a New Shanghai Circus performance at the local community college last night. As stunning as the acrobatics were, the vivid colors definitely enhanced the experience.

While at Nashotah House I found myself being consulted on color. The classrooms were being painted, and as Academic Dean I was asked what the color scheme should be. I consulted a friend who works in architecture, and she gave me a book about the “feel” of colors. My advice was overruled, but a new sensitivity to color had been awakened. Strangely, later that year a local public school brought me in as a consultant on classroom color. My engagement with color is purely subjective, but I know if I see a certain shade of blue I can be literally transfixed by fascination. My minimal exposure to Holi has opened a new window on religion for me. Color. It is an aspect of life to be celebrated.

Courtesy Louisiana State University

Abuse of Power

In many ways the naiveté of youth still clings to me. I was reared to respect authority and to trust those whom society placed in power over me. As skeptical experience wears away at this ancient veneer, I have become more retrospective of the whole enterprise of the social experiment. Perhaps I shouldn’t have read The Call of the Wild after all.

A few months back I wrote a post supporting a student at Butler University, Jess Zimmerman, who was being sued by the university for perceived slights against the administration on his anonymous blog. That post has forged a connection between Jess and myself, although I’ve never met him. That connection is one of justice and fairness, traits that should, above all, be upheld by institutions of higher learning. In an email last night, Jess updated me on his situation. The lawsuit has been dropped (my thanks to all of you who signed the electronic petition through this blog), but the recriminations continue. The details are available on Jess’ blog, but the short version is that in order to have a fair trial the university had placed him under a $100,000 bond. I am saddened, but not surprised, by this abuse of power.

Over the past several months I have wearily retrod this familiar path. I too have been the victim of institutional power in an episode that haunts me to this day. In slow motion I watch and rewatch men “in authority” dismantling the hopes and aspirations of a neophyte academic who was left wondering, like a dog, why he was being beaten so. There is no action to take. There is no club to wield. The only thing required is to be aware of the situation. Although I shouldn’t have done it, I did read Jack London’s Call of the Wild. And it is my hope that young students unfairly targeted, like Jess, have the resilience of Buck and will remember their pasts when they come to lead their companions in forging a better world.

The Gospel According to Caulfield

When one is asked to cite her or his favorite theologian, J. D. Salinger isn’t likely to be in the running. He might not even make the top ten. My personal introduction to Salinger, however, took place in a theological context. While in a Cambridge (Massachusetts) bookshop with a grad school buddy, I pointed out Mircea Eliade’s classic The Sacred and the Profane, insisting that my friend read it. Never to be outdone, Dave pointed at Salinger’s Franny and Zooey and said if I bought and read it he would do the same with Eliade. The Catcher in the Rye had not been part of my high school curriculum, so I was curious what all the fuss was about. I took him up on his dare. I’m not sure Dave ever read Eliade, but I read Salinger. My first impression was, “I don’t get it.”

Now my daughter’s school does require The Catcher in the Rye, and I’ve always tried (not always successfully) to keep up with her required reading. It gives us something to talk about – I’ve read several great books I’d otherwise have missed by this exercise. So I picked up the Catcher and plowed through. Salinger, I’m sure, requires no introduction. What is noteworthy, however, is that Holden Caulfield, while avowing himself an atheist, does make subtle but pointed comments about religion. (One of the occupational hazards of being a religionist is a constantly humming radar looking for any god-talk that might otherwise blend into the haze.) Holden, in chapter 14, points out the idiotic behavior of the disciples while Jesus was alive. He admits to thinking Jesus is okay, but his favorite character is the demon-possessed man who lives among the tombs. “I like him ten times as much as the Disciples, that poor bastard,” he says.

Who is as honest as Holden?

There is true religion in this statement. The “lunatic” running about in the tombs, rejected by society and even as far from God as you can get (demon possessed), is an image of humanity. Living a life of desperate alienation, the man in the tombs appeals to angst-ridden teenagers and displaced adults alike. He is likeable because he is like us. Holden scores bonus points on that observation!

With Salinger’s recent death, a renewed interest has sprung up about his novels – books that have changed the literary landscape. I read Catcher with more inherent appreciation than I did Franny and Zooey, but I’ve grown up a little since then. As an adult I can better appreciate the honest appraisals of Holden Caulfield.

Burning Crosses and Aftershocks

In a small blurb I would have missed had my wife not pointed it out, today’s paper carried a brief follow-up on the religious implications of the Haiti earthquake. The story (caption) ran: “A Christian mob circles a burning stack of items to be used for a Haitian voodoo ceremony for earthquake victims while singing church hymns in the Ti Ayiti neighborhood in Cité Soleil. The voodooists were run out of the central pavilion under a hail of rocks, and all the ceremonial items they left behind were destroyed and burned.”

My mind, at seeing burning religious symbols in the picture, turned to the infamous burning crosses used by equally intolerant “believers” in the last century in this country. Perhaps the motivation for burning the symbols is different, but the message is the same – a very narrow band of the wide continuum that is Christianity has decided that another variety of human being must be brought under control or destroyed. I don’t seem to recall reading in the Gospels, or even Paul for that matter, that throwing stones at believers in other faiths was a recommended activity. The voodou service, according to the blurb, was intended to help earthquake victims. Instead, the Christian faction forcibly drove them out and violated their religious symbols. Could they not have been spending helping victims instead?

I am not the sort to throw the first stone, knowing my own faults all too well, but the rampant supersessionism of an entitlement generation Christianity is showing its ugly side in such an instance as this. If religions are not here to improve the lives of others, then what is their purpose? To placate mythical gods to ensure one’s own blessed future, no matter who has to be hurt along the way? It seems to me that less time burning religious symbols and more time helping the needy is a platform worthy of any honest religion.

Archaeology in the Service of Politics

People are political creatures. Unfortunately. Politics, as most honest observers of society admit, serve the interest of the ruling party over the good of the whole. This is a nearly universal human flaw; a glance at any newspaper will demonstrate its prevalence. Those who practice politics can hardly be blamed for using the system they’ve inherited, but the system leads to many instances of unfortunate posturing and suffering. Clearly seen in Middle Eastern current events, it is nonetheless no less so in the “western world.” Often in both political arenas the Bible is invoked.

An article in this morning’s New Jersey Star-Ledger bears the headline “Archaeologist links ancient wall to Bible and King Solomon.” The story goes on to describe how excavations in Jerusalem outside the Temple Mount have unearthed a stone wall that might have been part of the legendary temple of Solomon. Of course, putting biblical names to mute structures amounts to voicing ownership claims. Solomon is not a historically attested individual yet – the only source referencing him is the Bible – and claims to have found his temple are premature. As the story states, “Palestinian archaeologists have criticized their Israeli counterparts’ rush to link finds to the Bible.” Amen. So they have; the structure itself is used as a form of dominance. Eilat Mazar, the archaeologist named in the article, is quoted as having said that this wall, “testifies to a ruling presence.”

The Haram es-Sharif, or Temple Mount, is one of the most hotly contested pieces of real estate on the planet. Embedded within these claims are acclamations of ownership. This brief post does not offer the space to unfold the complex issues in any substantial way, but it is an opportunity to note how archaeology is often used to establish tenuous holds on a past that is too foggy to penetrate. Like the classic dystopias of the twentieth century, politically oriented individuals use the evidence to write their own versions of the past. Pasting the name of an uncertain Solomon on a building that the Bible states was built by Phoenicians is an ironic historical twist indeed.

Gnu Jerusalem from WikiCommons

Patriarchal Goddesses

My fascination with goddesses began when I decided to research Asherah. Having grown up in a monotheistic milieu, goddesses were strangely, but not surprisingly, irrelevant. I had, of course, read about them in mythology classes, but they seemed less defined than the gods who had strong, striking characteristics. Now that I’m revisiting many classical goddesses in the course of preparing my class on Mythology, I’m discovering a renewed appreciation for the feminine divine and its contribution to the ancient world.

Athena saves a hero

Athena and Artemis have been on my mind for the past several weeks. Among the Olympian deities they are among the strongest female figures (Aphrodite, of course, provides her own feminine form of power, and Hera, although mighty, remains largely in the background). Perhaps what creates such a striking form for Athena and Artemis is that they blend the traditional masculine and feminine roles in a way that the ancient Greeks were prescient to devise – they both possess weaponry and strength that frequently brings mortal men to their demise. They don’t wile with “feminine charms” like Aphrodite; instead they meet men on their own tuft – hunting and warfare, bravery and muscle. They are virgins, not needing male approval. Together they form the basis of many ancient aspects of divine nobility.

Artemis and her man-dog

Today, however, when we think of Olympians Zeus and Poseidon come to mind almost immediately as the two major figures. No one disputes the unstoppable power of Zeus’ thunderbolt or Poseidon’s earthquake. The goddesses, however, display their power on the human level. They may set the fortunes of armies going to war or individuals out for personal glory or fame. They touch the characters on a more human level. They also have their counterparts, unfortunately often eclipsed, in the world of the ancient Near East. Astarte is still poorly understood, and Anat, although more fully fleshed out at Ugarit, largely remains an enigma. The importance of Athena and Artemis thus stands out in sharper relief for having survived the overly acquisitive masculine ego to remind people everywhere that goddesses also will have their due. Given enough time, perhaps even the gods will understand.