Higher Ethics

As a part-time public servant (I teach part-time at two state schools, Rutgers and Montclair State) I am required to sit myself in front of the computer for over an hour each year to watch a slide show on the ethics expected of public servants. Probably the first time this was a good thing since I had seriously been considering taking a tip-jar to class with me to help meet the costs of living in New Jersey. You see, part-timers do not get benefits. Some, like me, teach twice as many courses as their “full-time” colleagues and get paid less than half of what their betters do. I am a bargain-basement public servant. I figured a tip-jar might just help to cover mileage (not reimbursed). As I listen to the stern-voiced lady spilling out all the unethical practices (like tip-jars) that can lead to the dismissal of bad public servants, my mind can’t help but to wander to what Bruce Springsteen famously called “the mansion on the hill.”

Froma Harrop, a journalist in Providence, wrote an op-ed piece on higher education that appeared in yesterday’s New Jersey Star-Ledger. After surveying the situation at her local Brown University, Ms. Harrop laments the seemingly endlessly escalating costs of higher education. In the past four decades tuition has increased an average of 15 percent, whereas incomes (at least some) increased at an average of 6.5 percent. She notes, however, that the money is not going to professors or academic programs. The lion’s share of university money goes to sports teams. Students who often have trouble passing my admittedly easy introductory-level courses are pampered, petted, and preened by the university. The average undergrad has plenty of stories to tell of how they have been forbidden goods and services that the university reserves for its sports stars. Ms. Harrop also cites the fact that the number of administrators has nearly doubled in the last 30 years. For all that, the schools haven’t become more efficient, just top-heavy.

So as I waste an evening looking blankly at my computer screen, I realize that I am a public servant. Strictly part-time. I also realize that many public servants – those who hold high political office come to mind – earn far more than they strictly need. In fact, the benefits package alone of some of these “servants” would easily support a family of three mere mortals. And they don’t even have to make their own car payments. As an undergrad I took enough courses in ethics to officially declare it a minor. I have studied religion, a discipline akin to ethics, all my life. As the stern-voiced lady tells me all the bad things I cannot do with state money, I wonder what the top public servants are doing tonight.

Bleached Angels

A friend recently asked why, in the canons of western art, angels suddenly made the shift from colorful to predominately white. What was behind this loss of color? The history of angel imagery is complex and a great deal of the complication derives from a generally iconoclastic sensibility in late Israelite religion. Images were frowned upon, so we do not get “Hebrew angels” recorded for us. The current-day perception of angels seems to go back to Mesopotamian Apkallu figures and Egyptian deities. In both ancient cultures various deities and demi-gods were portrayed as winged humans. The Egyptian figures, at least, were colorful. In the world of the Hebrew Bible angels are nowhere cited as having wings and they were likely imagined as being pretty much the same as humans in form. Many biblical characters mistake angels for people.

In Greek portrayals, Nike, goddess of victory, is a winged character. Eros, the god of love, also bears wings (and unlike Nike, he is generally bare all over.) In some vase paintings the Harpies are winged women. Since Greek pottery painting was generally monochromatic, we don’t have much color to go on. The earliest Christian angel portrayal comes from the Priscilla Catacomb in Rome. This angel is monochrome and wingless. The more familiar, and lavishly colored angels are Byzantine creations. Since my opinions on art history are not to be trusted, it is advisable not to make too much of this, but Byzantine art made flamboyant use of saturated hues to bring glory to God. This is part of the tradition behind Orthodox icon writing, and angels were simply following suit.

In the Middle Ages in Europe, angels were widely used to represent good and evil. It would stand to reason (if not to art-historical standards) that “good angels” would show their goodness by donning white apparel while “evil angels” would take on darker garb. This also fits with the growing tendency to represent Satan as dark red or black in color during this time period. As angels symbolized goodness, they became bleached of their former, Byzantine color. Symbolic value outweighed aesthetic sensibilities. Today angels retain their ancient legacy of Mesopotamia, Egypt, and Greece. Wings fit the view of angels as messengers, although ancient ideas of their colors depended more on the artistic conventions of the culture than any attempt to be true-to-life.

The earliest Christian angel (left)

Roman Women

This week’s Life section of Time magazine features an issue that yet again raises the questions of definitions and who decides on correct religion. The feature by Tim Padgett entitled “Robes for Women” demonstrates the conflicted nature of religious authority. With the Vatican claiming women have never been priests, but historians questioning the assertion, the salient point is who has the right to decide. And what is lost, if such a change were to take place. Tradition is not threatened by change – it always stands sentinel over the past, but no religion remains unchanged for any length of time. It is not biblical authority that is lost either. Any religious body whose scriptures state, “call no man on earth your father,” yet which addresses its clergy by the title “Father” clearly possesses the casuistry to get around other biblical injunctions. What is lost is male power.

No matter how vociferous theologians may be concerning the genderlessness of God, the default male image seems deeply embedded in the human psyche. One of the most ancient and pervasive of mythological themes is the search for the father. The loving mother is the one who stays near and raises the child while the father leaves to make provision, or for reasons less wholesome. At some level we know that the deity portrayed by Scripture and tradition is male, a father who is difficult to find at times, particularly times of need. This archetypal image is not an excuse not to re-envision a genderless deity, but it underscores what generations of human experience has taught us. Referring to God as father and mother only complicates the matter by throwing into the mix all aspects of gender complications. Can humans even truly worship a god without gender?

If the Womenpriests movement succeeds, as no doubt it should, there will always remain a group who will not accept their authority. My experience at Nashotah House taught me that some prejudices are so deeply rooted that they are no longer even recognized by those who hold them. Wild examples of theological gymnastics were paraded before me as to why women should not hold priestly office. And like Nashotah House reveals, if women are finally accepted by Rome, others will split away and both sides will lay claim to the true faith. There will be no convincing either that the other is correct. The history of Christianity has taught us this sad truth. Current estimates suggest there are some 38,000 different Christian denominations. This is the common fate of all religions who claim to have exclusive access to the single, unambiguous truth.

The secret of the catacombs

Shopping for Truth

Friends often tell me that I should start a new religion. After all, modern day religious practice is generally a matter of “shopping around” until you find a brand you like. Lifetimes go into shaping religious sensibilities and outlooks, and when we see something we like, we choose that as our spiritual refuge. I was reminded of this once again by a story in Friday’s New Jersey Star-Ledger about a girl who’s been suspended from school for following her religion. Her North Carolina school has a dress code forbidding certain body piercings, but the girl belongs to the Church of Body Modification. The girl’s mother makes a valid point (in the words of the Associated Press article by Tom Breen): “school officials are setting themselves up as judges of what constitutes a ‘real’ religion.”

Religion may be defined in many different ways. Today many people consider religion a belief system that requires a strong faith commitment; belief is primary in such a definition. On the other hand, today’s world still includes many people who are born into a religion that is essentially a system of rituals or practices rather than a belief structure. It could be argued that such people do their rituals and practices precisely because they believe them, but often belief is not even discussed. It is simply a matter of who they are.

If religion entails solely a belief system, then any number of philosophies and outlooks might be defined as religious. Governments would need to be liberal with their tax-exempt status coupon books, since should I declare that my predilection for things Ugaritic to be a religion, who could reasonably protest? With a couple of like-minded adherents, we would have created a new religion (or a very old religion, depending on how you look at it).

Religious freedom defines the United States. For all its faults and foibles, this nation has allowed freedom of conscience to be the yardstick by which we are measured. If the girl’s religion insists on a nose-ring, who is local government to dispute this? If we could learn to define what a religion is, perhaps we would be much further along the path of ensuring true religious liberty.

Finding true religion in the shopping mall of life

Ends and Beginnings

The Ninth Gate, a Roman Polanski film from a bygone decade, portrays a world the director doesn’t believe in. Typical of “devil movies,” the story involves a personified evil that not only seeks world domination, but who also writes books. I’ve been working on a book review for Relegere, the new online journal of Studies in Religion and Reception. In part the book addresses how the devil is portrayed in movies, although this particular film is not cited. Perhaps it is difficult to take seriously a film where the screenwriter is not a believer.

As a young teen I listened with horror as friends described The Omen, a movie that I never saw until just last year. The premise of the movie, that the Antichrist has already been born and is now walking the earth, ready to usher in Hal Lindsey-esque last days, is frightening to those who find a biblical basis for the idea. When finally watching the film the scariest part was viewing the extras. David Seltzer, author of both the book and screenplay, eerily tells the interviewer that he believes the Antichrist to be here now. His acceptance of mythology is admirable, but it is the problematic acquiescence to a modern reconstruction of disparate ancient views that is troubling. Like many late-twentieth century westerners, Seltzer has been influenced by attempts to construct a coherent account of the apocalypse from tattered bits of ancient traditions that never belonged together.

If education included a serious, critical look at how religious ideas developed, the world might be spared this sad predilection for seeking its own end. Apocalyptic ideas thrive in cultures of persecution, such as those very real torments of Jews under Antiochus and Christians under Nero. Their hopes for a brave new world of righteous rule, borrowing freely from Zoroastrian traditions of a new age, offered scraps of expectation of a better tomorrow to those dying today. When nineteenth-century evangelists saw the advances of industrialization and Darwin’s rational explanations of human origins, they felt the need to reconstruct the biblical demise of the world. Modern day apocalypticism, so evident in the Y2K, 9/11, and 2012 scares, is often ready to accept uncritically a supposed future already scripted by a sadly misunderstood Bible. If the world ends it will be our own doing, and maybe Roman Polanski will have to rethink whether or not a devil can actually write a book.

Noah in Time

When the silence was first broken at Gorgias Press, one of my colleagues suggested that I read The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger. The title suggested to me some kind of point-of-view rewriting of H. G. Wells’ classic The Time Machine, a novel that had a large influence on my young, science-fiction inclined mind. For some reason I wanted to keep this place sacred to the memory of Wells and I dismissed the suggestion with polite demurral. Since that time Niffenegger has been constructing quite a reputation as a novelist, and because I enjoy the implications of time-travel and I like to keep current – fashionably late, of course – I finally took the time to read the book.

I wasn’t sure what to expect; it is a sensitive love story, wrenching in parts, but the mysteries of time travel are left to a genetic defect and not some technological invention. In the course of wending in and out of past and present lives, the main characters, Clare and Henry, carry on a dialogue that includes the dynamic of a protagonist raised Catholic. Once, while discussing the bizarre nature of time traveling, Henry suggests that Noah is a fairy tale to which Clare replies, “Noah is in the Bible. He’s not a fairy tale.” This statement reaffirms that, for many people, Noah is the obvious touchstone of the Bible and modern society. A versatile figure, enigmatic and only sketchily drawn in the Bible, Noah reappears regularly in the popular media. Just this summer I noted how Justin Cronin’s The Passage also cites Noah as a schematic for much of the plot that bears the story. A few weeks ago I mentioned how the remake of The Day the Earth Stood Still viewed Klaatu’s ship as an ark. Noah from outer space.

Noah is a foundational figure for our society. This should not be surprising since the flood myth is among the most ancient of stories that humanity has relegated to religious literature. The Sumerians and Babylonians told the story long before Genesis was composed. In its own way, the Noah story is an example of time-travel. A tale whose origins are lost in the pre-literate stages of humanity, it becomes history with the uncritical acceptance of the Bible, only to become a defining myth of twenty-first century literature. The world of the twenty-first century often feels like a fragile environment ripe for a catastrophic flood. Consciously or not, we are still looking for our Noah.

Another kind of Noah

Sinful Moonsters

Wednesday night a student asked me about the moon god Sin. The name “Sin” has nothing etymologically in common with the usual English word for wrongdoing; they are simply homonyms. Nevertheless, when students first encounter this odd juxtaposition they often think that there must be something to it. This particular student pointed out that many activities classified as sinful take place at night, under the moon. Could they be connected? Linguistically, no; but it did get me thinking about the idea of the moon’s baleful influence on various creatures of the night.

Serious academic works seldom take vampires, werewolves and witches, some of the moon’s most infamously unholy acolytes, to be worthy of valuable research time. Meanwhile Stephanie Meyer and company are laughing all the way to the blood bank. Popular culture gives credence to the children of the night that the academic world ignores. I tried to do a little research on the moon and its mythology only to find that most moon books deal either with serious attempts at astronomy or serious attempts at astrology, neither of which I was seeking. I wanted to know when the moon had slipped from being the gentle god/goddess of the night into its role as the overseer of evil.

Evidence was scant, but it seems that in the Middle Ages, maybe influenced by late Roman ideas, scholars began to recognize the moon’s potential as a dismal influence. The moon has long been popular in folklore as a source of lunacy and luck. Lovers crave the moonlight, but so do teenage vampires and raging werewolves. This is, apparently, a concept of no great ancient pedigree. In any case, the moon here has nothing to do with sin.