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.