Black and What?

Dystopias are not all of the same stripe, or, in this case, color. Jasper Fforde’s Shades of Grey is perhaps the most colorful look at a bleak future I have ever read. The premise, funny and strangely serious, is that in the distant future color perception ability determines social rank. A cast of odd characters who see predominantly only one color vie for superiority while keeping to the rules of the founder of this society. The hilarious results often carry profound consequences. Those who live within this highly stratified culture fear those who do not, including a mysterious group known as the monochrome fundamentalists. The founder of the social order, Munsell, has achieved god-like status and his writings have the force of scripture.

This dystopia reflects, whether intentional or not, the social impact of many religions. Reading about the prefects, the political leaders of this culture, is like reading about the clergy who mistake spiritual guidance for power. The transition from pastor to politician is simple enough among social creatures like ourselves: we need those with persuasive powers to make decisions in accord with our best interests. Prefects and priests, however, are both eminently corruptible (let us say nothing of politicians) and evolution favors those who look out for themselves. The trick is to make others buy it.

Fforde’s dismal future includes Leapbacks where useful technology from the past is discarded in order to make people more compliant. In a world where color is a rare commodity, a modern usage of the rainbow seems apropos. Everything we are learning from psychology and biology—sciences still in their youth—suggests that sexual orientation is deeply ingrained, more so that just preferences or likes. The mainstream religions, however, have actively discriminated against those who are aware of their deepest needs. I know many excellent, caring individuals who’ve been kept from the ministry because of their orientation. Others who are clearly deleterious to the church climb to positions of power based on their approved sexual appetites. And society falls into lockstep with them. I don’t know Jasper Fforde’s political views, but along with him I would suggest that the ability to see shades of gray might be the best thing for any society, whether in the distant future, or especially, in the present.

Friend of Jonah

Last year a gray whale was spotted off the coast of Herzliya in Israel. As in the days of Jonah. Actually, we need to turn the clock back a little further. According to Arthur Max of the Associated Press, the gray whale was hunted to extinction in the Atlantic already in the eighteenth century. This whale, therefore, had to travel north of Canada from the Pacific Ocean through channels that are normally frozen. Global warming has opened these passageways and plankton last seen in the north Atlantic 800,000 years ago have begun to reappear. If Jonah was smart, he’d have stayed in that whale and would’ve just kept going.

Big business stands to lose the most from cleaning up the environment. It cuts into the bottom line. Happily, if brainlessly, joining the laissez-faire coven are many of the “Religious Right” who see destruction of the environment as part of God’s plan. So much for “and behold, it was very good.” When free market economists first met the conservative evangelicals it seemed that they had little in common beyond similar haircuts and a desire to turn time back to the 1950s. Since then they’ve joined to become a very powerful force in American politics, preventing any headway to improving the globe for others, even if it isn’t a personal concern of theirs. So much for “do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”

Each year in my Prophets class I have students that are far more concerned that a literal Jonah was swallowed by a literal whale rather than hearing the message Jonah proclaimed: repent or face destruction. If we turn the thermostat up a few degrees more each year maybe Jesus will finally jump on that white stallion and split the Mount of Olives. You can’t quite see the Mediterranean from there, but if you could you might spot a lonely gray whale. You don’t need to look for the little man inside. That whale is the sign of Jonah.

Wave to Jonah for me!

Reverend Sanders?

According to the Associated Press yesterday, Yenitza Colichon was sentenced to 18 months’ probation for child neglect and cruelty. The charges stemmed from a 2007 religious ceremony in which her seven-year-old daughter was made to watch a chicken sacrifice in New Jersey, and the girl was fed the animal’s heart. The practice is part of the Palo Mayombe religion of central Africa. This whole incident highlights the vital question of when religion crosses the line into child neglect. Many of us bear scars—some psychological, some physical—from our religious upbringings. It has been concluded by psychologists that children do not possess the level of abstraction necessary to deal with religious concepts until they are about the age of twelve. Parents, often fearful of eternal consequences should their children depart the one, true faith (whatever that is), begin religious instruction early, often passing their children off to others who are in no real sense an expert in the religion itself.

The United States embraces, on paper, the concept of freedom of religion. Rightly, it seems, the strong arm of the state will step in when a child is endangered or neglected. The unanswered question is at what point does this neglect or endangerment occur? Authorities turn a blind eye if the faith is time-honored, and, especially, if it is of European/American extraction. Typically of the monotheistic variety. What is standard practice for other religions, as this case demonstrates, may be called into question. Sacrifice is also at the heart of the Judeo-Christian tradition. Sublimated into different forms for both political and theological reasons, those of us in that tradition have abstracted sacrifice to bloodless words on a page. When we see red, child neglect and cruelty are cited.

Religions frequently make extreme claims over the lives of their adherents. Most religions relax such claims for children, but others continue ancient practice that is tacitly condoned. Sometimes those permissible rites cause real physical pain and scars. If under the hand of a moyel, okay; if scarification in African tradition, not okay. Religions denigrating personal achievements of the young, setting them onto a path of failure, okay; religions ritually killing animals, as even the Bible demands, not okay. Without making any judgment on specific religious outlooks, the reality of lingering effects remains. Are the terrors of Christian nightmares inspired by tales of Hell any less cruel than watching a domesticated animal die? Is eating a chicken heart any less unusual that fish on Fridays? Is being unfamiliar with a religion grounds for dismissing its authenticity or claim for equality? Some of us find animal sacrifice distasteful, but if we proclaim a tidy sacrifice each Sunday, and share it with our children, that particular rite/right is protected by law.

What would (wiki-commons) chickens do?

Religious Reflections

In a stunning display of alacrity, over the weekend I viewed the movie Mirrors only three years after it was released. Since I watch horror films with a view to how they portray religion, I was preparing myself for disappointment when well over halfway through no overt, or even subtle references seemed to have been made to any holy topic. As Ben Carson, security guard, discovers that the mirrors of his night-watch building are haunted, the story seemed to be evolving into the standard ghost movie. When the missing character of Anna Esseker was finally found, I breathed a sigh of relief—she was living in a convent (because there were no mirrors there). What I supposed was a ghost movie was really a demon movie, and I found yet another example of how fear and religion interact.

Since I’m currently preparing a program for a local church on the way that Christianity is represented in the movies, I’ve been rewatching a couple of standard films to gauge the scope of this interaction. So this weekend I also watched Constantine. This has never been one of my favorite movies, but as imbued as it is with Christian mythology it cannot really be ignored. When Gabriel is explaining to Constantine why he is bringing the devil’s son into the world, I realized that the reason coincided with some of my observations. Gabriel notes that humans need fear to appreciate God. By bringing fear into the world, Gabriel will force humans to become more pious. Intertextuality in the movies.

If I might indulge in some theological (that word makes me shudder) speculation that may not have been intended by the writers/producers, both of these movies utilize the concept that demons are trapped by mirrors. This may be a reflection truer than ever intended—we are our own demons. Mirrors reflect the vanity of visual appeal; our looks fade and our true self remains. Is that self an angel or a demon? Christian tradition states they are one and the same. Demons are only fallen angels. I’ve seen enough horror films to know that religion is not a universal element, but it often does appear in the role of producer of both good and evil. In this sense, at least, the movies are very honest.

Voted Off the Island

One of my readers sent me an article about the Church of Sweden. According to this article only about 15 percent of the members of this national church “believe in Jesus.” The question raised by this statistic is a vital one in a world where politics and religion become inextricably intertwined: what is Christianity and who decides? As the recent vote in New York permitting gay marriage (about time!) shows, many who identify themselves as Christians in America equate that religious outlook with conservative political views (even on issues the Bible says little about). It is what the believer says they “believe” that defines the religion. Ancient religions, as I have noted before, show that this outlook on devotional practice is not the only alternative.

Religions began as a matter of praxis—what people did rather than what they believed. What does an almighty deity gain from theological assent in the heads of believers? Is it a warm, fuzzy feeling or something more? Belief, a very strong motivating factor in humanity, is a psychological phenomenon, not a spiritual one. Many religious groups today are reluctant to accept that psychology covers the territory formerly covered by spirituality. Both phenomena (or the phenomenon) occur in the brain. If a brain does not assent to the typical belief structure, is it thereby deported from the gathering of a religious body? Many times in religious history that has been the case, but what do we say to the Church of Sweden? Kick out 85 percent of your members? I can see many unhappy, unemployed clergy in such a future.

What does it mean to be Christian? Is it to deny civil rights to anyone who differs in outlook or lifestyle from you? Is it sleepily to say “yea” when you wake up after a sermon? Or is it following the teachings of Jesus? The same one who once taught his followers to love those who differed from them, to turn the other cheek instead of proactively pulling out their handguns? It seems that in the modern furor to laid hold of claims of absolute righteousness humanity has somewhere fallen between the cracks. I’ve never been assaulted by a Swede, and I don’t recall, in recent years, Sweden invading other countries to further its economic fortunes. Could it be that, to paraphrase a religious thinker of antiquity, a Swede shall lead them?

Contriving the Rapture

In the light of last month’s failed rapture attempt, I decided to read a book that I picked up some years ago that had been written in the wake of the millennial scare. Having grown up with nightmares of the rapture, I learned during my first college class on the book of Revelation that it was relatively modern meme, invented in the nineteenth century. Barbara Rossing’s The Rapture Exposed seemed a good way to refresh my memory without having to go through all those boxes of books in the attic to find my original textbooks. Rossing, a Lutheran minister and New Testament professor, brings to light some very important facts beyond the historical roots of this theological fabrication—facts that should concern religious and secular alike. The rapture was invented by John Nelson Darby, a founder of the Plymouth Brethren and convoluted biblical scholar. Basing his roadmap of the future singularly on Daniel 9, he concocted the rapture to make sense of his apocalyptic epiphany. Drawing diverse sections of Paul’s letters to the Thessalonians, the Gospel of Matthew, and the book of Revelation together, he mixed thoroughly, half-baked it, and pulled the rapture out of the oven.

The idea caught like wildfire. Today young people who’ve never read the Bible and who’ve seldom attended religious services know what the rapture is. What they do not realize is that nearly all of the Christian tradition rejects it, seeing it for what it is—a Johnny-come-lately of amateur theology that sees the Bible through the lenses of dilettante-sensibilities like those of Michael Drosnin (The Bible Code man). Instead of seriously reading the Bible and trying to understand it, society prefers to see it as a little bit of magic in the midst of our scientific and technical world view. It is a safe place where bits of the supernatural are preserved and that defies rational explanation. Rossing’s book does a good job of exposing the wrong-headedness of LaHaye’s Left Behind conclave, but she overlooks an important feature of this coterie: they have an unconfessed agenda.

The unspoken agenda is best summed up by Lt. Frank Drebin of Police Squad when he says, “blowing away a fleeing suspect with my 44 magnum used to mean everything to me. I enjoyed it, well who wouldn’t?” Rossing misunderstands Fundamentalism when she expresses surprise at the bloodlust present in the Left Behind novels. What she doesn’t take into account is that, as a collective, Fundamentalists thrive on self-righteousness. Feeling the same violent urges that others do—all humans experience violent emotions—they sublimate that aggression and save it for the unrighteous—God’s enemies. When the gloves come off in the apocalypse, that hatred bursts out in good, old-fashioned bloodletting—albeit with combat helicopters and high-tech weaponry. Of the Christians I know who own guns, the Fundamentalists are most avid in their rights to do so. In college I met my first Christian survivalists and I learned that the rapture was a ruse. It is a deadly mix, especially when this warped theology makes it into politics. Although Rossing’s vision of a new earth in the second half of her book may not appeal to everyone, Americans should read at least the first few chapters to learn why the rapture will never occur.

American Haunted

Serendipity, although rare, still occurs in university life. As an adjunct instructor whose livelihood revolves around the number of courses that may be squeezed into a limited number of days, I have been considering online courses. As an avid watcher of horror movies—excellent preparation for adjunct life these days—I have attempted to sample the genre widely. It is therapeutic to see people in fictional situations worse than my own. While attending a training course on constructing online courses earlier this week I was surprised to find out my instructor was Brent Monahan, a versatile and talented individual of whose presence at Rutgers I was unaware. Most famously Dr. Monahan wrote the novel and screenplay for An American Haunting, a movie I had written a post on back in January.

Compulsive in my desire to be on time, I generally show up to all appointments early. For this particular session I was the first person present, so, not recognizing my teacher, we struck up a conversation about my field of studies. (He asked; I try not to lead with my chin.) He was nonplussed about the fact that I am affiliated with the religious studies department—in general this is a conversation stopper since, along with politics, it is a forbidden topic in polite company. Before I realized who he was he suggested that perhaps people go into this field because of their internal struggle with good and evil. It was a perceptive statement and it made sense when it came out that he was a writer of horror films and novels.

Since I’ve been exploring the nexus between religion and horror I have wondered what the deeper connection might be. Clearly fear of the unknown, the overly powerful, and the randomness of life in an uncaring universe play into it, but perhaps it is also the struggle of good and evil. Horror films often present the “what if” scenario: what if the side of evil were allowed free reign? Often the fount of that evil, in horror films, is religion gone awry. Certainly in An American Haunting a pious man is driven by inner demons to the abuse of his own child. That he is a religious man is made plain from the near-constant presence of a clergyman in his house once the haunting starts. While the exact relationship remains to be parsed, it is clear that fear and religion reside very near one another in our brains, perhaps as near as good resides to evil.

Floods and Fairytales

Never mind that the Bible gives only a cursory description of “Noah’s ark.” Never mind that the story in Genesis is clearly derivative from Mesopotamian originals such as the epics of Ziusudra, Atrahasis, and Gilgamesh (the Utnapishtim version). Never mind that all species of animals cannot survive within a single, extremely limited biosphere without evolving afterward into the diversity that the world currently hosts, even counting extinctions. Never mind that not enough water exists (with apologies to Kevin Costner) to cover all landforms without every mountain being pounded flat and stacked neatly on top of the ocean floor. In short, never mind reality—people will continue to build replicas of Noah’s ark. As a literary trope the ark has proved invaluable; many of my posts demonstrate how it appears and reappears in books and movies as a symbol of human irresponsibility. And yet, in order to demonstrate the veracity of an ancient myth, we continue to build fundamentalist arks.

Yesterday my wife pointed me to a msnbc story of an ark being built—and sailed—in the Netherlands. Certainly those in the “low countries” have global warming to deal with more immediately that those on higher (geologically, not morally, speaking) ground, and the engineer of this particular ark does not strike the viewer as a rabid literalist (he is a little too unkempt for that, and his shirt is not white and he wears no tie). John Huibers, however, worries about a more localized flood in the Netherlands. The ark may be overkill since polar bears, koala bears and panda bears are rare in Amsterdam, at least when one is not medicated. Arks, however, make great tourist attractions.

In Hong Kong the Kwok brothers built an ark replica in 2009. Greenpeace has one in Istanbul. A Christian theme-park featuring a full-size ark is under development in Kentucky, and just two years ago I drove past a roadside ark being built in Maryland. Most of these arks, interestingly, follow the design in the Sun Pictures’ production In Search of Noah’s Ark rather than the more traditional, mythic design in my children’s Bible. It is a natural human tendency to mistake form for substance. The story of Noah is a cautionary tale that has taken on daunting real-life implications in our treatment of our planet. Water is the signature of life, but for us land-dwellers too much is not a good thing. Thankfully, should a flood come, there will soon be enough arks around the world that would-be Noahs may find themselves in a buyers’ market.

Still my favorite ark

Literary Floods

Oryx and Crake ends with a cliffhanger. I read the book at the suggestion of a friend and found a dystopia that simply continues along present trends. Naturally I had to read the second part, Margaret Atwood’s The Year of the Flood. I had picked up this book first, not realizing that there was a previous novel, because I supposed the eponymous flood to be that of Noah. I was not disappointed on that score. In keeping with her strong biblical awareness, Atwood has given readers the creation in Oryx and Crake, and the deluge in The Year of the Flood. Set in the same forlorn future, those who survive the pandemic described in the first book seek to survive in a world where most of the people are gone. Many of the survivors, as we learn in the second installment, are former members of an alternative religion, God’s Gardeners. This quasi-cult, led by Adams and Eves, prepares for the waterless flood (pandemic) by caching Ararats—supply stores—around the broken-down city they inhabit. As in Genesis these Noahs and Mrs. Noahs are replications of Adam and Eve.

Not only is Atwood an engaging author, she supports the green causes advocated by her books. This is a more honest form of religion than most sharply chiseled theologies that do nothing to improve the lot of a suffering world. Academic religionists like to tell us exactly what God is like while shrugging shoulders over the destruction of everything he putatively made. In Atwood’s world, those who believe in God express it through care of their planet. As always, however, they are the modest voices easily drowned out by the unconscionable greed of the powerful. In the words of John Dickinson from the musical 1776, “Don’t forget that most men with nothing would rather protect the possibility of becoming rich than face the reality of being poor.” Rare is the person willing to take the higher road and set aside his or her own wants for the benefit of others.

Ethics, at one time, meant seriously considering the implications of what we do. With the morals of our “leaders” it is pretty difficult to hold to that illusion any longer. Yesterday I sat through another round of ethics training and learned nothing that I hadn’t learned in Sunday School as a child. Be nice to others, don’t use them for your own advantage, help those who need assistance. It really isn’t that hard. Newt Gingrich with his highly unethical treatment of his ex-wife, Anthony Weiner’s peccadilloes, Sarah Palin’s revisionist reality—these scarcely inspire confidence. The flood is upon us. I think I might rather live in a world the Margaret Atwood would envision, as long as she was there too, to show us how to survive.

A Midsummer’s Daydream

Solstices and equinoxes are among the earliest religious festivals in the world. While there is no means of proving this, the signs are fairly indicative; ancient peoples were close watchers of the sky. Like many other species of animals, they used subtle clues to help them determine which direction to go at what time of year. Once agriculture developed, the sky contained the key of when to plant and when to harvest and when to thank the gods. It is no surprise that when the classical religions developed many of their festivals centered around, especially, the equinoxes and the winter solstice. Did they even bother with the summer?

The summer solstice tends to get lost in most modern festive calendars: it is summer, a time when we are busy relaxing—the crops are in the ground, firewood need not be gathered just yet, and life is perhaps just a tiny bit easier (except for those poor kids who still have to finish out the school year!). No cause for wonder that this particular holiday (traditionally Midsummer) is most evident in northern Europe where in just six months days will be dreadfully short and very cold. Midsummer celebrates light, fertility, and healing. Some traditions claim that witches meet on Midsummer as the sun begins, once again, its inexorable journey south (from the northern hemisphere perspective) nearly to disappear in the dark December.

The modern day Midsummer celebration held by reconstructionist Neo-Pagans is Litha. The name is borrowed from the Venerable Bede but the observance of the solstice is certainly authentic. It is often celebrated with fires to shorten the already apocopated night. It is the time when darkness is at bay. It is perhaps telling that the major religions have little to add to days of relatively carefree existence. People need their religion when things go bad, but when the struggle is minimized we might leave angry gods behind for a while and just bask in the ease of it all. But, as the Neo-Pagans and witches know, the longest day of the year also foreshadows the darkness that, until this day next year, will never again allow us as much light.

Northern European Midsummer's bonfire

Stranger Tides

Yo, ho, ho and a plate of spaghetti

The closest I’ve come to appreciating pirates is the command of the Flying Spaghetti Monster that its devotees must wear pirate costumes. Nevertheless, being only human, I was curious about the fourth installment of Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean series although the old storyline had mercifully died out. This weekend my family joined a handful of others still showing interest and went to watch Captain Jack Sparrow’s antics on the silver screen. Perhaps it was because this movie actually followed, loosely, an actual book instead of a theme-park phantasmagoric pastiche, but I found the movie surpassed my expectations. I’m discussing it here because of the heavy dose of religious concepts brought into the story by the inclusion of a missionary.

In typical Pirates fashion, the character introductions are unconventional, and so it is with Philip, the missionary. Tied to a mast on Blackbeard’s ship as a kind of human talisman, the poor man is cut down by Sparrow and a crewman during a mutiny. The crewman declares to Philip, “You are either for us or against us!” to which the missionary replies, “I am neither with you, nor am I against you!” The crewman asks Sparrow if that is possible, to which Captain Jack replies, “He’s religious, I believe it’s required.” This was possibly the funniest line in the movie, but it was so because of the underlying truth. The sarcasm here is directed at a representative of a church that will ultimately lead to the destruction of eternal life. Granted, the agents of that destruction are Catholic, presumably.

Once the fountain of youth is discovered and Blackbeard and Barbossa engage in their swordplay, Spanish troops arrive and promptly destroy the pagan fountain declaring that the church (presumably Catholic) is the only means to eternal life. The Protestant missionary, meanwhile, in an act of self-sacrifice returns to free a misunderstood mermaid. (This is Disney, after all.) The dialogue is difficult to remember from a single viewing, but the addition of religious elements beyond the supernatural lent a gravitas to this final Pirate film that the others lacked. Even placed among the fantastic, the religious elements grounded it in a reality where faith, sacrifice, and fortitude became intrinsic to the story. I doubt I’ll head off to the Spanish Main any time soon, but I appreciate movies that offer a bit of substance along with their entertainment on that transatlantic crossing.

The Big Man

“When the change was made uptown/And the Big Man joined the band…”

Clarence Clemons (from WikiCommons)

Among the earliest markers of religion in human culture is the advent of music. While still disputed, bone “flutes” from about 40,000 years ago seem to indicate that early humans knew the value of music. Driving around now that the weather has warmed up, it is clear that people still find music so important that they like to share it from their open car windows at a volume I find uncomfortable even across the street. Like religion, music is an intensely personal aspect of life. Although I mention bands I like occasionally in this public forum, I never parse my music tastes too much because they are a little too revealing. With Clarence Clemons’ death yesterday, however, it is appropriate to pause and give my respects.

Those who know me sometimes wonder at the fascination I have with Bruce Springsteen; I am not an idol-worshipper and not all of Springsteen’s work appeals to me equally, but he represents an appreciation of the ordinary person. What first drew me to his music was the fact that he understood blue-collar mentality and angst generated by an unfair society. In an interview on his Born to Run special edition, Springsteen notes the seminal change that Clarence Clemons made in the E-Street Band, as reflected in the opening quote from “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out” above. The playing of Clemons’ saxophone was so distinctive that even my very untrained ear could often pick it out on other artists’ albums even before reading the credits.

The E Street Band, of course, changed over time and lost a first-generation member with Danny Federici’s death three years ago. Although Bruce Springsteen is alive and well, and still active in causes to help those who are victims of an uncaring system, the E Street Band will never be the same without Clarence Clemons. The old camp song says that music never dies, and that is a hope we can hold out for the impact of remarkable performers as well. When I walk into a classroom with kids who have no idea who the Beatles were and who’ve never heard of Alice Cooper, Deep Purple, or Pink Floyd, I feel my age. But it is okay as long as I can still listen to the music once I get home (I never play the stereo while driving—I prefer to concentrate on the music a little too much). It is like a religious experience. I am sure the cosmos is a more harmonious place for having hosted Clarence Clemons, even if just for a little while.

Exegesis Dies

One of the time-honored adages among composition primers is that a serious writer will own a well-worn dictionary and thesaurus. In twenty-first century terms that equates, I suppose, to frequently visiting bookmarked dictionary and thesaurus websites. While writing my dissertation I once cited a dictionary—likely Merriam-Webster—only to be told that the definitive dictionary for academic purposes was the Oxford English Dictionary. Copyright laws prevent some dictionary sites from including entries from the OED, and, given the perpetual vicissitudes of streams of income, I really can’t afford to subscribe to the fee-based OED website, much less purchase the physical hardcopy. Dictionary.com remains free and even has a handy thesaurus, so it is my well-worn website. Many electronic wordsmithies offer a word of the day, and so on my morning visit to dictionary.com I found a familiar word awaiting today: eisegesis. Eisegesis, according to the this online dictionary is: “An interpretation that expresses the interpreter’s own ideas, bias, or the like, rather than the meaning of the text.”

In biblical studies eisegesis is utilized like an academic swear word. The true scholar engages in exegesis, the practice that is supposed to reveal what the original text actually meant. The problem, of course, is that what the text originally meant depends on the baggage the reader brings with him or herself. Reader-response theorists inform us that even an author loses control of words once they are scrawled on paper (or electrons, I suspect). The words convey their own interpretation, and, as in any communication system, the transmission must be interpreted through the medium of a receiver. My understanding of the original meaning will depend on what I bring to the parchment. Even the author cannot control the denotation of what s/he has written, for connotation always lurks in the shadowy corners of the room.

The implication of this simply truth for any religious writing should be transparent. We do not control the words—we interpret them. I’ve taught many fundamentalists over the years who bring this weary refrain to the text: “I don’t interpret the Bible, I just read it.” Reading is interpreting. The words on a page (or monitor) are simply a system of ciphers that must be processed. The way your brain processes them will be different from the way my brain does. For the fundamentalist, God wrote the words, but God has no physical brain so how are we to find the true meaning? Exegesis. At the heart of the matter, however, all exegesis is eisegesis. The example I like to give my classes is the word “die” —what does it mean? Most say something like “to stop living.” Those with a background in machining might say die is a noun indicating a mould or tooling device to form an object. Some even know it could be the singular of the word “dice.” Once they’ve exhausted their suggestions, I inform them any of them could be correct, only I had neglected to tell them it was intended to be the feminine singular form of the definite article in German.

Zombie Friday

New Jersey is known for its zombies. Last October Asbury Park gained admission to the Guinness Book of World Records for the largest zombie walk (exception is made, of course, for daily life in Washington, DC). The movie zombie, in its now classic form, was reborn in western Pennsylvania, but New Jersey is the place where strange afterlives appear to gravitate. Yesterday Stephen Finley was sentenced. Finley, a mortician, had been convicted of selling the healthy organs of his dead customers to earn a little extra on the side. Given that the governor, Chris Christie, might rival Vlad the Impaler in his zeal for chopping, this really does not surprise me at all. Is it not the ultimate triumph of the free market to consider human beings commodities to be packaged, used up, repackaged and resold? Moral rectitude is on the side of the strong arm.

As someone who has been on the receiving end of the chop more than once, and reduced to a zombie-like state of perpetual job-insecurity, I think I know how the undead feel. Not having a place in the normal world of the living, but not quite dead, the zombie wanders about looking to feed on brains. This idea of brain-lust seems to stem from the cult classic The Return of the Living Dead, although, not being a film specialist, I would welcome correction on this point. Nevertheless, like the modern zombie I hail from western Pennsylvania and nothing satisfies me like a good brain (metaphorically, of course).

The idea of harvesting the organs of the powerless dead also suggests the endlessly referenced Soylent Green. Here the staunch NRA promoter Charlton Heston fights against the establishment that is turning (spoiler alert) people into Soylent Green, the ultimate solution to food shortages! For, after all, are people not just commodities? America’s thirst for zombies reflects our growing sense of victimization: the zombie is primarily a creature without a will, brought back by powers beyond its control. In the original vodun context the zombie was a source of cheap labor. Is it any surprise that West African slaves brought the concept to the New World with them? Today, of course, those with the cash may simply purchase the organs they desire, cutting out the middle man and going straight to the source.

Iraq’s Bell

Gertrude Bell requires no introduction for students of the ancient Near East. A strong-willed, self-determining woman, her influence was arguably as great as that of her friend T. E. Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia), but being a woman in a man’s world, movies were not framed around her life and she was not mythologized into a larger-than-life character. I have just finished Desert Queen by Janet Wallach, the life story of Gertrude Bell. Although tending towards the overly romantic in parts, this biography does a fine job highlighting the influence Gertrude Bell had on the newly formed country of Iraq at the close of the First World War.

Although Gertrude early lost her mother she was a child of a well-to-do English family. She was considered an anomaly at a still patriarchal Oxford in her day, but soon discovered the draw of the Arabian and Syrian deserts. Traveling seemed to be an antidote for being a capable woman in a man’s England. In the desert the sheiks and tribal heads came to treat her as an equal, like a man. (T. E. Lawrence, on the other hand, was famed for occasionally pretending to be a woman.) Assigned a government post in post-war Iraq, she helped draw up the borders of the present nation of Iraq and achieved a status with the desert tribes to which few of her male colleagues even aspired. Failing in health and fortunes, lonely in the desert she loved, Gertrude Bell committed suicide in Baghdad and was buried in the land she loved.

The story of Gertrude Bell is inspiring despite its sad ending. Here was a woman who refused to accept the model society cut out for her gender. Part of her loneliness resulted from her staunch unwillingness to be like other passive, subservient women of her time. After the reigns of political power slipped from her hands, Gertrude Bell founded the Baghdad Museum, collecting the initial artifacts herself and donating a substantial portion of her remaining funds to the museum in her will. Until the “Second Gulf War” it was the finest collection of ancient Mesopotamian artifacts in Iraq, where culture itself began. Gertrude Bell’s books are still read, but she is still known primarily as the associate of Sir Leonard Woolley and Lawrence of Arabia, although she was a woman on her own terms. She remains a symbol of what might be accomplished even when the standards of society declare a person unfit to lead based on gender or any other physical attribute.