Mystical Aquariums

This is the dawning of the age of aquariums. With the Gulf oil spill still gushing out of control, there is a current awareness of the plight of the seas due to unnatural (i.e. human) interference. Perhaps that is why so many people flocked to the Mystic Aquarium yesterday. That, and the fact that it was a beautiful day on the northeast coast. Having grown up in land-locked western Pennsylvania, I have always appreciated the oceans and their microcosms, designed for human visitation. My first actual aquarium experience was the New England Aquarium in Boston, a facility that sets a very high standard for all others. Trips to the Seattle Aquarium, the Norwalk Aquarium, the Camden Aquarium, and a variety of smaller facilities (I unfortunately missed out when my family visited the San Francisco and Shedd (Chicago) Aquariums) always leave me with a sense of connectedness to our planet. Life emerged from the seas, and, as Rachel Carson observed, we always long to go back to our ancestral home.

It is easy to spend an entire day at the Mystic Aquarium. Beluga whales are impressive close-up, and the sea lions show more intelligence that your average Republican. Jellyfish, with no brain at all, are capable of doing tricks humans can’t – a tank of bioluminescent jellies was captivating. The penguins had a fascination all their own. It had been a few years since I’d been able to pet a shark or ray. In a separate exhibit on Deep Sea exploration, largely featuring Robert Ballard, the man who discovered the Titanic, the aquarium houses several robots used for entering regions uninhabitable by humans. Since my intense association with FIRST Robotics is never far from mind this was an unexpected bonus. The biblical aspect of the journey, however, came at the end.

Exhausted from a day of wandering, hot and lethargic, we came across the final exhibit: Noah’s Ark! I had begun to wonder if I’d managed to spend a day in an entirely secular venue when the Bible showed up. The display was about the Black Sea. William Ryan and Walter Pittman’s theory of the origin of Noah’s flood in the Black Sea deluge was showcased, along with a video of Ballard, Ryan and Pittman discussing their ideas. As I tell my students, I don’t find this theory particularly convincing – the flood story first emerged, it seems, in southern Mesopotamia – but it is an excellent example of the hold the Bible has on the western imagination. The Black Sea did flood, shifting from fresh to salt water; that discovery is fascinating in itself. In the western world, however, it somehow just feels incomplete without giving old Noah his own Nantucket sleigh ride. To find the origin of the story of Noah, a trip to any vantage-point along the ocean where the power of the sea is evident is all that is required.

Seaport Mystic

While at Mystic Seaport yesterday epiphanies of America’s religious life lined up to be encountered. The museum owns the Charles W. Morgan, the last surviving American whaler from the nineteenth century. The connection between whaling and religion is, as I’ve posted about before, Herman Melville’s Moby Dick. Whaling was a barbaric, inhumane business – particularly for the whale – but it had all the justification that BP or Exxon still utilize in the destruction of our oceans: the product is in demand and pockets are very nicely lined indeed. Moby Dick is, however, the story of an inaccessible, at times angry god, who leads to death as easily as enlightenment. The Morgan is dry-docked undergoing extensive restoration, yet is still open to the public. Stooped over in the blubber room, imagining the horrors of the place, Melville was my only comfort that something akin to nobility might have come from whaling.

The Seaport also offers an exhibition called “Voyages” – a look at the way the sea has played and continues to play a role in the life of an America that most people associate with a large swath of dry land. The first display tells the story of a family of Cuban immigrants rescued from a tiny fishing boat while trying to get to the United States. A nearby display features Neustra Senora de la Caridad del Cobre. This mythological character is a goddess emerging from the conflation of the Virgin Mary and the African goddess (through the mediation of Santeria) Oshun. The story of the Cuban family associates the origin of this goddess’s concern with seafarers through the chance find of a statue of the Virgin floating at sea near Cuba in 1606. Our Lady of Charity, the Catholic version, is the patron saint of Cuba, and the syncretism of these goddesses has led to a new mythological character on view in Mystic.
Neustra Senora de la Caridad del Cobre

Further along in the same building, in the story of immigration, is the painting shown below. A Jewish family is shown disembarking before a Lady Liberty with “America” written on her crown in Hebrew. The inscription on the sand asks whether the new world has room for the righteous. It is a poignant reminder that acceptance in the United States religious world is often a difficult one. Even today non-Christian religions are viewed with suspicion by many in America. The sea has brought us all together, however, since historically immigration has meant crossing the great waters somehow. One of the gifts of the sea that we are still struggling to grasp is what it means truly to offer freedom of religion to those from far distant outlooks in a world that daily requires less of the gods.

Mystery of Mystic

Ever since my school days at Boston University, even before a movie made the town famous, I wanted to visit Mystic, Connecticut. Perhaps it was the draw of the name that evoked foggy harbors and suggested the possibility of some kind of enlightenment. Perhaps it was because Mystic is near the gray waters of the north Atlantic that so captivate me. Perhaps because I am innately attracted by the sense of place. Whatever the reason, since we needed a break from my perpetual quasi-unemployment and my wife’s demanding hours, we have come to Mystic at last. Since traffic was exceptionally heavy, we haven’t had a chance to explore much beyond Mystic Pizza, now an iconic stop for all visitors.

She wasn't there

Curious about the name with its quasi-religious overtones, I tried to find in the town’s literature some hint of its origin. Nobody knows for sure. Like many “American” toponyms, however, Mystic likely derives from native American roots. The suggestion has been made that it means “great river whose water is driven in waves” (missi tuk). To the colonial ear ever alert for religious significance, this may have become “Mystic.” The true origin of the name may never be known.

Religious enthusiasm among early European colonists and their scions further west often inspired quasi-spiritual toponyms. Devil’s Tower and Devil’s Lake (Wyoming and Wisconsin, respectively) had no associations with the dark lord, but rather were locations of spiritual significance for the native populations. Grasping for a way to express this, the best evangelical Christianity could come up with was “Devil.” At least Mystic sounds much less diabolical. As we explore this town I will, by dint of natural disposition, keep an eye open for the religious implications. If I, perchance, uncover the true origin of the name, my readers will be the first to know.

Life Without Dragons

Every now and again, the great cosmic spheres align in their eternal turning and something just right clicks into place on our little planet. Such a juxtaposition must have recently occurred, for just when my worry about dragons had been reaching a crescendo, I received an offer for “dragon bane,” a beautifully crafted double-axe in the Minoan tradition, for only $39.99. The double-axe, or labrys, actually predates the Minoans, probably originating in ancient Sumer. The dragon predates even that.

Labrys dragon style

I’ve posted on the origin of dragons before, but of all mythological creatures dragons are perhaps the most tenacious. In various guises they reappear when we thought that they were gone. They are among the most ancient of feared creatures. Representing the untamed, indeed untamable areas of life, the dragon is the perfect symbol of chaos. Dragons are the disorder against which gods always struggle. Metaphorical dragons are always more troublesome than physical ones.

Although the idea of being a sword-swinging hero out to vanquish the forces of evil is an appealing one, I know that I won’t be purchasing this collectable. I have too much respect for dragons to see them slain by gods or mortals. What would life be without our dragons?

Vegetarian Meat Loaf

I’ve never been a hero worshipper. Perhaps the delusion set in when I realized several years ago that nobody really has all the answers. The “experts” (I’m even sometimes shackled with that designation at times) are limited by the same mental capacity as all Homo sapiens. Our elected officials do their best to find solutions, but at the end of the day oil still gushes into the Gulf, priests still violate children, and unemployment continues to wreck lives. No, hero worship is counter-productive and leads only to disappointment. Not that there aren’t people I admire – there are many – but they have their shortcomings too.

One of my admired people that often surprises those who know me is Meat Loaf. I really don’t qualify as a head-banger, but my tastes in music vary widely. With Meat Loaf the attraction is the sincerity evident in his voice. He may not write his own material, but the man feels the songs he belts out. So it was that I made a rare music purchase when Hang Cool Teddy Bear was released earlier this month. On glancing through the liner notes I was pleasantly surprised to find Boris Vallejo’s Crucifixion among the art.

Boris Vallejo's Crucifixion

Anyone familiar with the fantasy-style artwork in most Meat Loaf albums will not be surprised at finding Vallejo’s work, but this particular piece, reminiscent of Salvador Dali’s “religious” paintings, presents a depth of feeling to the crucifixion that most theologians diminish in their desire for profundity. The Jesus in this piece is sealed within the cross, raging for release. Most devotional paintings show a placid Jesus accepting, with existentialist-type calm, his long-foretold fate. I find Vallejo’s work compelling for the same reason I enjoy Meat Loaf’s performances – there is real emotion here.

Religion has little to offer the world in the way of rationality. Theologians have generally accepted the fact that religion runs counter to reason and therefore its value lies elsewhere. What is left when reason is gone is emotion. When reason tells me there are no heroes left, emotion sometimes convinces me otherwise.

Voices from the Third Estate

Discussions over the past week in that great wasteland we call state government have included talk of actually having millionaires taxed to shoulder a little of the state’s fiscal burden. Naturally there has been a strong backlash in this nation of deeply embedded plutocracy. Those who have their millions certainly feel little social responsibility, since the prosperity Gospel (or its analogs) comforts them with whispers that wealth is a sign of blessing. One of the most evil ironies of all is that many such folk have the chutzpah to cite the Bible as their backer. God loves the beautiful people.

Such virulent misreading of religion shrugs off millions of gallons of crude oil gushing into the Gulf. Petroleum companies breed some of the wealthiest individuals around, and if we wipe out the marine life of the southern coast, well, that’s a small price to pay for individual privilege. Somewhere along the line an unholy matrimony between religion and greed produced the great plague that will lead to the fall of western civilization. This may be seen clearly among the apes.

Frans de Waal, an author whom I’ve quoted before, notes that in ape society when an individual (or individuals) takes advantage of the system, the group eventually brings an end to his (or rarely her) reign. Primate society can only tolerate abuses that damage a community for so long before a collapse is immanent. Consider Rome, “the eternal empire.” Every day politicians posture in the media about how they have the best interests of society at heart. As members of the privileged classes, they have lost sight of what it feels like to live in the constant umbra of the supercilious wealthy while millions have no jobs, no health care, no future. Millionaires owe nothing to the society that allowed them to become rich, for the Bible tells them so. Nature, however, begs to differ.

Religious Democracy

An op-ed piece in yesterday’s paper raised some important issues concerning religion and the unfortunate fall of Mark Souder. The article, by E. J. Dionne, pointed out that Souder once said, “To ask me to check my Christian beliefs at the public door is to ask me to expel the Holy Spirit from my life when I serve as a congressman, and that I will not do.” This pointed affirmation of faith is precisely the dilemma of a democratic system that allows for freedom of religion. All religions (those that are serious attempts to deal with the supernatural, in any case) are defined by the conviction that their practices, their beliefs, their ethics, are correct. When a religious individual is elected, or even converted after election, in a democratic system their religion is given power. With their faith they vote on issues that cut across religious boundaries, binding those who do not agree to their personal faith stance by law.

Europe in the Middle Ages is perhaps the most obvious example of what might happen when one religious body (in that case, the Roman Catholic Church) gains excessive political power. Problem is, these days folks don’t agree on which is the right religion. America was not founded as a Christian nation, let alone an evangelical Neo-Con one. It has become, perhaps because of this fact, one of the most actively religious nations in the developed world. As befits a consumer mentality, religions are offered in a marketplace. Within Christianity alone there are aisles and aisles of churches from which to choose. When a public servant is elected and her or his religion dictates their votes, have we not just lost freedom of religion?

Teaching for many years in a seminary is a sure way of becoming aware of the limited training that religious leaders generally receive (if any). The short time they spend being educated does not equip them to think through all the implications of their convictions. They attain the pulpit and the congressional leaders who happen to be in their congregations receive an inchoate theology confused by their three years earning a “Master of Divinity” degree. Not all are equal to the task. Those religious leaders with promise, often because of internal church politics, end up in smaller venues, their voices effectively silenced. Those with the most strident voices reach larger congregations, often without the humility of admitting that the more you learn about theology they less you know. Their congregants, armed with faulty perceptions of their own religion, burst into their congressional chambers full of conviction based on problematic conceptions. It is a very serious dilemma.

Perhaps what is needed is an oath of office for politicians rather like the Hippocratic Oath for physicians. Perhaps they should swear to put their own religious outlooks in check while considering social issues on which their constituents vary widely. Perhaps their integrity in truly representing the population they govern would lessen the impact of their inevitable personal foibles. And naturally, this oath would not be superstitiously sworn with a hand on the Bible.

God Said “Let There Be Life”

The news has been buzzing with the human creation of the first synthetic cell. Religious leaders in the theologically litigious world of western religions are not quite sure what to make of this one. Is it life? If so, by definition, people could not have created it; only God creates life. Right?

Life is one of those hazy concepts that, although it may easily be described, is difficult to define. What exactly is a “life force”? Where does it come from? It seems to have arisen naturally on the primordial earth, and likely has developed elsewhere in the vast universe as well. Traditional theisitic approaches to religion claim that this is God’s trump card, the ace of spades in the game that is existence. Only God gives life, takes life, and gives it back again. Human efforts to replicate the process are bluffs.

No wonder religious leaders don’t know what to make of this development! This is the final gauntlet to be thrown down. Once life itself is explained, the god of the gaps may vanish forever. In the 1950s amino acids were created in a laboratory. Not quite sixty years later, cells have been replicated. There is still time for religious leaders to contemplate where all this is going. Of course, many stake their beliefs that 2012 may take care of all of this and life will forever remain in the provenance of the divine.

Amino acid or cosmic SOS?

Strawberry Fields Forever

For beings dwelling on the surface of our planet, we tend to live far from the earth. I was reminded of this yesterday when my family went on our annual strawberry-picking venture. Each year we drive out to a remote farm that has pick-your-own strawberries and fill too many baskets because we just can’t stop ourselves when nature offers such obvious bounty. On the years when I can visit the northwest with my in-laws, one of my favorite pastimes is huckleberry picking. The two berry experiences differ vastly; one is a cultivated, planned layout of particular strains of red berries, the other is a forage-and-hunt search for wild purple berries that haven’t been stripped by the grizzlies. Both, however, put me intimately in touch with the earth. Trousers muddy from direct contact with the ground, fingers stained from the delicate fruit juices newly plucked from the plant – it is an earthy enterprise.

At such times it is evident how religions began. I don’t pretend to comprehend the whole complex phenomenon of the psychology of religion, but in those rare moments I share in the ancient art of survival. Finding your own food, body pressing directly on the earth with no cushion or blanket or furniture between. These moments must reflect our earliest ancestors’ daily life. When times of hardship came and food could not be found, they could only watch as members of their group died an agonizing death from hunger. Would they not call out to the powers beyond themselves, the unseen providers who alone could assure a steady supply of food?

In is no surprise that the first instances we find of religion in any developed form are strongly agricultural. Gods of rain and “fertility” abound. The ancient voices can distinctly be heard: we truly are helpless to create our own food. It is an echo that fades with each passing triumph of human control over our environment. When we can force nature to do our bidding – irrigating huge tracts of waterless land, feeding pesticides and growth enhancers into the very soil, even starting to create life itself in the laboratory – where are the gods? They have stiff competition indeed. So when I hold that strawberry in my hand, organically connected to the very planet that gave birth to us all, I feel that I have tapped into the roots of religion itself.

Robots and Religion

One of the constant duties I have as a “Robot Dad” (Soccer Mom just doesn’t apply here) is seeking funding for my daughter’s high school FIRST Robotics team. Always a supportive layman in the scientific venture to understand our world, I have encouraged this interest although I am pretty hopeless when it comes to understanding how it all works. So last night I found myself at a fund-raising, public-awareness event at the local minor league stadium. The Somerset Patriots stadium is just down the road, but I’d never been to a game before. I really don’t feel comfortable participating in crowd dynamics; I’d rather sit back and analyze than participate. And I have no real interest in sports. I wondered how I was going to survive being in such a foreign environment for several hours. Then my wife pointed out a, as it were, godsend.

Last night was “Faith Night” at the Somerset County Ballpark. The event was sponsored by Somerset Christian College, “the ONLY licensed and accredited Christ-centered, evangelical, undergraduate college in New Jersey.” Located in the appropriately denominated Zarephath, New Jersey, the small, extremely doctrinal college bought the privilege of a pre-game sermonette. Not too often does a public sporting event begin with references to “our Lord Jesus Christ;” I looked around for him but then remembered he’d been hit by a car just under two weeks ago. One of the administrators addressed the crowd and, trying to capture the elated, anticipatory feel of the moment, compared his college to a baseball game. I was busy handing out fliers and missed the early stages of his rhetoric, but when I heard him say, “third base is love,” my mind shifted to a more familiar baseball analogy I’d learned in high school. I imagined the prospective students’ interest when he went on to declare, “home base is Heaven!”

As two Christian motorcycle clubs solemnly rode their hogs around the field and local Catholic schools hawked their own fliers in competition, the sound system belted out any pop songs that had the word “faith” in them, no matter what the context. It was a circus-like atmosphere. I was surrounded by techies deeply immersed in science and human learning. We, in turn, were surrounded by an aggressive Christianity eager to claim as much territory as possible. Above it all wafted scents of searing flesh and deep-fried snacks. It seemed to me that a microcosm of American life was indeed evident at the stadium last night. Perhaps there is nothing as American as baseball after all.

Lead us not...

Suddenly the Bible

Universities are generally reluctant to hire Bible faculty (except in the case of “Christian” colleges where Bible faculty must be a particular brand of “scholar” who has already decided the case before the evidence is presented). The stock reason given to department heads and deans is that religion just doesn’t make money. Universities thrive on the income from science grants and wealthy business and finance donors who want buildings named after them. Religion, it is claimed, doesn’t bring in money. The real problem is that universities don’t know how to market religion.

The other day I visited the local craft store to pick up supplies for a project my wife is working on. While in line I spotted this novelty item:

God in a box?

The shelf was full of them. When I returned later in the week, the supply was severely diminished. Someone had reasoned, correctly, that by putting a cheap length of paper-roll with “biblical” designs printed on it in a kit for making a throw-away mug, it would sell. Obviously universities and colleges couldn’t stoop to such a level, could they? Isn’t it far more respectable to draw your finest students into a mega-stadium to watch guys in tights throw around a fake pig-bladder and emerge drunk enough to vomit up all the costly snack foods they purchased? This is, after all, where the leaders of tomorrow are formed!

While looking up a troublesome word I can’t spell in an online dictionary, I was intrigued by this promotional inset (click to see). All I had done was type in a word on the Merriam-Webster site (it was not a biblical word), and when the answer popped up, so did this self promotional add for “Kiss of Death, Feet of Clay: Words From the Bible.” I don’t pretend to know how online advertising works, but it was clear that Merriam-Webster wanted the cyber-visitor to linger on their site, and the Bible was an effective way to achieve this.

The Bible is all around us. It would be difficult to nominate any other icon that would better illustrate American social self-consciousness. So immediately the sophisticated academic shuns it. Those of us who’ve put our lives into trying to understand the Bible phenomenon are deemed useless as money-makers while our counterparts in marketing and sales laugh biblically all the way to the bank.

Indiana Wants Me

The conservative evangelical Christian camp sometimes makes blogging on religion just too easy. The paper this morning reveals yet another evangelical, abstinence-only soap-boxer being caught with his boxers down. Indiana Representative Mark Souder is stepping down because of an extra-marital affair. To fill in the gaps on other such evangelical infidelities, I recommend Max Blumenthal’s Republican Gomorrah.

No, I do not rejoice in such revelations. The suffering of families brought on by such blatant hypocrisy cuts me deeply. The lesson we should all be learning from this is that self-righteousness is a sham. For all their faults, the more liberal factions of society are ready to admit that people are people and not cookie-cutter angels. They are inclined to admit that temptations exist, yet statistics demonstrate their marriages tend to be more secure and less plagued with infidelity. I tend to think it is because evangelical teaching has lost sight of what is truly important: people have always been, and still are, people. The belief that God has made one class of people better than others, and that saying sex doesn’t exist gives you the right to live in a pre-Edenic fantasy world, the Neo-Con is in very deep denial. No wonder many evangelicals distrust psychology!

I often ponder why this disconnect should exist at all. It seems that evangelicalism has been singularly poor at providing the tools to cope with reality. If temptation doesn’t exist for the blessed, then why bother developing strategies to deal with it? When the newspapers come out, it is easier to cast the first stone at the liberal media for airing dirty laundry than it is to examine your own hamper. Yet even the Bible itself has one important character criticizing the religious establishment as whitewashed tombs. No, I do not respond with glee to the sad outing of Mark Souder. I simply wish evangelicalism would truly advocate the honesty upon which it claims to be based.

In the Morning

The arrival of the most recent issue of MAARAV (15.2) was a poignant blend of joy and melancholy. Joy in that my article about the odd Hebrew word galgal was finally published, and melancholy in that this will likely be my last academic article. I began publishing academic pieces back in the early 90’s and kept a steady stream going until being abruptly dismissed from Nashotah House. Research requires a regular, steady employment situation with access to obscure materials and a somewhat predictable teaching load. Since being cast into the outer darkness of the adjuncts’ world, well, it’s awfully dim out here to try to devote the scant free time to in-depth study. Such is the world of academics.

This article was a spin-off of a much larger project – a book that was completely written and rejected by a noteworthy publisher and lies dormant on a hard-drive somewhere – on the weather terminology in the Psalms. Several publishers expressed minimal interest, and this article was an effort to demonstrate how weather language has been sublimated due to faulty methodology. The unusual word galgal likely derives from a root with connotations of circularity. Nineteenth-century travelers in the Levant associated the word with tumbleweeds, and this association has stuck ever since. In my article I sort through the lexical information seeking some kind of consensus in the West Semitic language family for a more solid understanding of this troublesome lexeme. To the unbiased observer, the earlier favored translation of “whirlwind” still holds a considerable amount of evidence.

This particular paper holds an enduring place in my memory. I first read it at the Society of Biblical Literature Annual Meeting in 2001 in Denver. Well, I started to read it. The morning of my paper I’d visited the Denver Museum of Nature and Science to see the famed dinosaur and mineral exhibits. While in the museum I became violently ill and had to take a taxi back to my hotel. When I tried to read the fated paper that afternoon, nausea swept over me and I couldn’t finish it. Somehow, returning to a project that had made me physically ill held little appeal, no matter what its academic merits. The paper sat, forgotten, until I thought to submit it to MAARAV a couple years back. Now it awaits the criticism of others while I move on to other things. I do hope that this humble contribution to Hebrew lexicography might be taken seriously since like Denver’s dinosaurs, it is the last of its kind.