Catskill Waiting

Catskills epiphany

We’re back from the Catskills and all they imply. One of the more obvious implications was a lack of internet access – one of the many reasons I like to frequent remote locations. I had planned this little get-away with some vague hopes of enlightenment of some kind. The quote from Melville in my last post is more than just nice prose; it is the essence of spiritual striving. I know those aren’t scientific words, but they embody the spirit of several nineteenth century American novelists I’ve read and reread. I did see a Catskill eagle while there, but I returned home still seeking an epiphany.

While briefly away from the constant demands of teaching, the bigger picture starts to come into focus. We visited Ellenville on the day of their Wild Blueberry and Huckleberry Festival – we’d just picked huckleberries ourselves in the mountains outside town – and religious groups were represented aplenty. I had noticed the many churches in this rural region, and one of the feters handed me a tract that informed me “If you have said ‘Yes’ to these three questions [have you ever sinned, lied, or stolen] (by your own admission), you are a lying, thieving, adulterer at heart; and we’ve only looked at three of the Ten Commandments.” And also, John Lennon is dead. Nothing like a little self-righteous judgment with your blueberry pie. Sirens began to blare and a fair-goer collapsed and had to be airlifted to a regional hospital. It was very dramatic.

This is where the big picture came in. When there is an accident, we take astounding measures to save the injured, suffering, or wounded. A fair-goer flown by life-flight to the hospital. At the same time, our society condones, encourages even, an unemployment scenario where even highly trained individuals are cut off from health care and self-esteem as well as income. Left to die a quiet death of desperation. As long as we don’t have to see it, death by redundancy is sanitary and sanctioned. Has this great society ever sinned, lied, or stolen? I have seen that Catskill eagle and I am still awaiting an epiphany.

Woeful Wisdom

“There is a wisdom that is woe; but there is a woe that is madness. And there is a Catskill eagle in some souls that can alike dive down into the blackest gorges, and soar out of them again and become invisible in the sunny spaces. And even if he for ever flies within the gorge, that gorge is in the mountains; so that even in his lowest swoop the mountain eagle is still higher than other birds upon the plain, even though they soar.” Herman Melville takes the credit for this passage. It is one of the many pericopes that make Moby Dick the greatest book ever written. Those who know me only as a biblical scholar may be surprised to read that, but I invite anyone who has ever instantly fallen in love with 1 Chronicles 1-9 to reply and argue the point.

Although Moby Dick has fallen into the provenance of books that are kept alive only by required high school and undergraduate required reading lists, this novel still comes back to me at many points in my life and fractured career as both a solace and a warning. Melville was clearly a man tormented by his search for meaning. He drew heavily on the Bible for Moby Dick, likening Ishmael to Ecclesiastes at one point, and the whaling haunts of New Bedford to tophets. To appreciate Moby Dick deeply, one must be familiar with the Bible.

Is this the Bible, or what?

Considering the great changes that are taking place in society, I often wonder if we have reached a breaking point. In my university life, I see students absolutely frantic to achieve an A in an easy class, one that would not have broken a sweat in my undergraduate days. Their anxiety is real; grade inflation has forged the B into the new D, or F. Yet these same students know nothing of life apart from the internet. In times like these, I betake myself to the Catskills, and with Melville, turn my eyes upward, seeking madness.

Jehovah Jireh

They came again this week. I was, conveniently, not home when they rang the bell. One thing with which I must credit the Jehovah’s Witnesses, however, is that they do recall the identity of their targeted converts. My neighborhood missionary always addresses me by name, and although she often has different associates with her, she knows I teach Bible courses at Rutgers and when we actually talk she tries to convince me of the Witnesses’ more exacting grasp on the truth of Holy Writ. When I returned home I found a copy of Awake! tucked in the door handle. Not the current issue, but the November 2007 edition entitled, “Can You Trust the Bible?”

The Jehovah’s Witnesses resemble many of my Fundamentalist friends in that they assume if you don’t share their view of the Bible that you somehow “distrust” or “disrespect” or “disbelieve” it. Too many disses! This mono-directional view of a complex document devalues the content and power of the biblical narrative, but most people are not trained to view subjects from multiple perspectives. This is clear from Awake! One point that the magazine makes regards science: “when it comes to scientific matters, the Bible is noteworthy not only for what it says but also for what it does not say.” The writers acknowledge that a scientific worldview conflicts with the flat-earth outlook of the biblical world, but oh, what the Bible doesn’t say! This enormous argument from silence speaks volumes. When we approach the question from the point of view of what mistakes the Bible does not make, we’ve got a universe entire in which to roam.

On the question of biblical authorship, the principle of pars pro toto is utilized to justify divine authorship. The Awake! article begins, “The Bible is frank about who penned its contents.” Among the first lessons of 101 is just how much of the Bible is anonymous. The next statement, however, is wrong on several points: “Most Bible writers acknowledged that they wrote in the name of Jehovah.” Almost never does the Bible claim direct divine guidance in its writing. The credit for this goes to Pseudo-Paul in 2 Timothy – only there does an author placing in the Bible make any claims about his fellow composers having been inspired. Jehovah as a name for Yahweh is documented for the first time in the 13th century (C.E.).

I am touched that a woman who knows so little of who I really am keeps coming to my door to save me from an unpleasant afterlife. She has taken the time to find an appropriate piece of literature for my teaching interests. But, like my Fundamentalist friends, she has missed the forest for the trees. After over forty years of reading and teaching the Bible, I have my own answer for “Can You Trust the Bible?”

SpongeBob’s Evolution

My daughter has, unfortunately, outgrown SpongeBob SquarePants. She was my putative excuse for watching the (literally) brainless eponymous lead character going about his inane adventures. The creator of SpongeBob, Stephen Hillenburg, is a marine biologist and much of the fun for adults watching the cartoon derived from the biologically correct remarks made by the characters about their physiological conditions. Watching the laughing yellow sponge with his inimitable voice was a pleasant escape from the constraint of my own biological existence.

Today the New Jersey Star-Ledger announced that two researchers from Princeton University may have discovered the oldest animal fossils ever recorded. It seems that for a while, some 635 million years ago, the earth was undergoing its Cryogenian Period when the planet surface was all but completely frozen. The earliest discovered animal fossils were discovered from after that period. Princeton geoscientist Adam Maloof has recovered what appear to be animal fossils from 650 million years ago, 15 million years before the big freeze. This find had been anticipated by genetic scientists who had suggested that such early animal forms likely existed prior to the appearance of the earliest sponges 520 million years ago.

For now the new finding shifts the fossil record back by about 90 million years. There will be massive gaps to be filled in by scarce traces left in inaccessible rock. Creationists will no doubt gloat that the fossil record is now even more full of holes than ever. This is frequently the quality of ambiguity that they suggest will topple the evolutionary lie. The truth, however, faces the opposite direction. The oldest creatures found are ancestors to the common sponge, pushing SpongeBob’s ancestors back many millennia before those of the Adam who discovered them. It seems to be the silly yellow sponge who will have the last laugh.

Gee, did I really cause all this?

Dark Night of the Ark

Vampires continue to be the rage of the age. My own interest began back in the days of Bram Stoker, Bela Lugosi, and Barnabas Collins. Stoker’s Dracula is one of the earliest novels I remember reading. Dark Shadows was a regular, gloomy fixture of 1960s daytime programming, and black-and-white vampire movies were often available on Saturday afternoons on commercial television. I have not kept pace with the current fetishism surrounding our toothy friends, but I did read Justin Cronin’s new novel, The Passage. I didn’t know the book featured New Age viral vampires, but they do make for a compelling story.

What particularly captured my attention in Cronin’s work, however, was the crossover between religious and monstrous themes. I have mentioned this connection previously, so I was glad to see confirmation that religion still features in monster stories. The religious element comes in the form of a virus developed by the military to create super-soldiers (a theme X-File affectionados might find familiar) that ultimately goes awry. The result is a girl who is part of a project named Noah; she lives the tremendous lifespan of the biblical hero without the debilitating effects of old age. She is also the ark by means of which humanity might survive the ordeal. The novel is apocalyptic and yet vaguely hopeful. It is also very difficult to lay aside for too many minutes at a time.

The tie-in of Noah and vampires is a novel one. The point of comparison is longevity – those who imbibe the blood of others do not age and wither as mere mortals do. Noah’s survival is a matter of grace (or science in the case of the novel). The last mortal to breech the two-and-a-quarter century mark (thank you, Terah), Noah is symbolic of those who stand out as examples of righteousness in a wicked world. It was refreshing to see the theme so creatively rendered by Cronin. The biblical flood is a kind of prepocalypse, a foreshadowing of what might recur if evil prevails. The Passage has left me strangely sentimental for both vampires and ark-builders alike.

Star Trek Paradise

I am not now, nor have I ever been, a Trekkie. I did watch the reruns of the original series after school on our black-and-white television, but I have never owned “Spock ears” nor does my cell phone look like a communicator. To the best of my recollection, I haven’t even seen all the episodes. I’ve mentioned before that some generous in-laws purchased the first season of the series for a gift last year. Since then my wife (a convenient excuse) has been interested in watching the remaining two seasons. We found a reasonably priced second season set and have been working our way through over the weekends of the summer.

Paradise-busters?

This weekend we watched the episode entitled “The Apple.” Even a fair-weather Star Trek watcher such as myself can’t help but notice that the series as a whole is biblically literate. Biblically literate, however, only in a popularist way. This became clear once again in “The Apple.” Stranded on a planet modeled after a troubled Garden of Eden, Captain Kirk and his landing party soon must destroy a serpentine “god” that keeps the luau-ready inhabitants in a state of perpetual ignorance. Diametrically opposed to Eden where it is the serpent who tempts with knowledge, this is a serpent that tempts with ignorance. Long, pleasant life without intellectual development and the “god” receives daily sacrifices. A world of status quo.

Back on the Enterprise, Kirk points out that the only one on the ship that bears resemblance to the Devil is, by implication, Spock. This is where the popularist interpretation grates most heavily. The Genesis version of Eden has no Devil, no Satan in it. Only a much later, revisionist re-reading, (certainly post-Zoroastrian) equates the snake with Satan. Genesis does not condemn the acquisition of knowledge. It comes with pain, true, but that is simply the way life is. Perhaps it would be easier for us all if some great Kirk might vanquish the inhibiting serpents of our apotheosis, but that’s simply not the way life works. In this instance, the Bible trumps Star Trek.

Sobek to the Beginning

From some of my earliest reveries, Maine has been my favorite state. This strange feature had to have been gleaned from books since I never visited Maine until my early twenties. Since that time I’ve returned as frequently as possible; however, over a decade spent in Wisconsin made the trip somewhat daunting. So last night, still dealing with lingering intense emotions from the county fair, I decided to watch Lake Placid, the 1999 horro-comedy set in Maine. The movie is generally brainless escapism, and even the scenery is that of British Columbia rather than New England. It had been years since I’d seen the film, so I was surprised when Kelly Scott stated in defense of Hector Cyr that crocodiles were worshipped as gods by many ancient peoples, making them more prayed to than Jesus. This was, naturally, a healthy dose of celluloid hyperbole, yet it did bring to mind Sobek, the Egyptian deity mentioned by name in the film.

The ancient Egyptians venerated many animals as possessors of god-like qualities. Crocodiles, naturally dangerous to humans as well as to many large mammals, would suggest themselves as a form of divinity. Sobek was never a major focus of the Egyptian collective of gods, yet the mummified remains of crocodiles and the striking iconography of the deity attest his cult. The ancient Egyptians had no way of knowing that the crocodile had withstood the pressures of evolution for millions of years, a striking example of a body plan and lifestyle requiring no improvement. Few creatures have the staying power of the crocodile, an animal capable of feats more incredible than the fabricated beast in Lake Placid.

While Jesus has nothing to fear from crocodile worship (or, apparently, the Beatles), religion grasps, even unwittingly, to the unchanging. In a culture shifting so rapidly that our eyes barely have time to focus before something completely novel is thrust before them, the stable image of the crocodile may still serve as a useful symbol of something our religious forebears knew that we should continue to recollect. Stability is worthy of admiration. In a bizarre way, throwing Maine together with crocodiles may be an antidote for melancholy, but only in the right environmental conditions.