Eat, Love, Eat

Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma has been on my “to read” pile for some time. I finally finished with it this week. As a vegetarian, I really didn’t need convincing that raising other beings with feelings and some intelligence for the purpose of eating them involves dilemmas. Pollan is not a vegetarian and makes the best case I’ve ever read for justifying his position. Still, I personally can’t face being the reason animals must die for my own gain. I know this is a stance fraught with difficulties. I’ve often mused that if I could get by without even eating plants, I would. I just hate to inconvenience anyone, or anything, else. But that’s not what I want to discuss. Pollan spends the first part of his book discussing corn, or maize. I hadn’t realized what a versatile crop it is, nor how prolific. The difficulty is that it is so good at what it does that it is bankrupting the farming industry. Government subsidies make corn growing the only way that big farmers can get ahead while nearly driving them broke at the same time. (It takes Pollan chapters to explain this, so I’ll need to refer you to the source on this one.) His conclusion: the free market simply does not work for food production.

I’ve long believed that the problems with our economy come from a decidedly “one size fits all” mentality. The free market rewards those who climb over others without that gnawing sense of guilt that prevents me from eating meat. Once you have lots, you only want more. No one ends up satisfied. Okay, so we’ll let Wall Street play its game. Higher education is in crisis because, like farming, the free market model simply does not apply. Guys like me (and plenty of gals too) do not spend years of our lives earning doctorates under the delusion that we’ll get rich. Many of us are idealists who just won’t grow up. All we want is to contribute to the collective knowledge of the human race and make a reasonable living doing it. Then the free market comes and whispers into university presidents’ ears that they should be making six or seven figure salaries. They should have limitless expense accounts. Universities should be all about “branding” with corporate style logos and money-sieves called sports teams. Somewhere along the way they forgot that they need teachers too. Some very prominent universities in the United States now have 70 percent of their classes taught by adjuncts. The system is simply not working.

One of the strangest anomalies out of all of this is that Christianity, the religion started by a guy who said the rich could not enter heaven unless they gave everything away, has crawled into bed with the free market. Enthusiastically. For many people to vote with conscience is to vote for an inherently unfair system that must, by its very design, consume all others. Survival of the fattest. I’m no economist, but I am certain that many other industries have gone the way of the T-rex because they simply didn’t fit the model of unbridled gain. Education is one, and the asteroid is already about to hit. What bothers me the most is that agriculture is another. Pollan ended up scaring me more than any horror flick. Our farming industry, right here in the best fed country on earth, is very, very frail. As long as we’re converting everything to the greed-based system, we should make money edible. After the asteroid strikes, during that long, dim winter, it will be the only thing left on the planet in abundance.

Homeland Security

I work just two blocks from the United Nations building in New York. While out to grab my lunch yesterday I was engulfed in a peaceful, if vocal demonstration. Many people were standing along Third Avenue with a perplexed look, myself included, I suppose, when a protestor from a great, surging throng thrust a paper into my hand. Headlined “Bring Justice to Guinea,” the paper outlined the brutalities being perpetrated against the Fulani in Guinea. I have to confess to being ignorant of most of the world’s trouble spots. In a society that is relatively free, we’ve been struggling to attain any real form of social equity without success for over two and a half centuries. When I read of the atrocities against the Fulani outlined on the flier, I wondered why I’d not heard of them before. I didn’t have to wonder long, however, because many of us have not received any real education beyond what has happened in the developed world. I decided to learn what I could in the brief moments after the commute home and before bed time. I discovered that the Fulani were once an empire in West Africa. Today in Guinea, according to the information at hand, they are subject to truly horrific treatment. The flier asks, “Would you stop a genocide if you saw it coming?”

I honestly cannot know what lies behind the suffering of the Fulani in Guinea, but historically genocides have either been about, or excused as being about, proper religious belief. One of the saddest commentaries on religion is that even in varieties of religion that claim peaceable teachings and human welfare, violence frequently breaks out. The distrust of the other runs very deep, and if the clearest dividing line is religion, so be it. The very nature of our brains causes us to divide the world about us into categories. The problem with categories is that they are often mental constructs that do not correlate to the reality they attempt to describe. Take people, for example. Does anyone really ever stick to a category or a label in all ways and at all times? Are we not prone to inconsistency and evolution? To use a label as an excuse to harm another is rightly called a hate crime today. Unfortunately, hate crimes are very common, if illegal in some places.

Homeland of the human race.

Difference may be perceived at least two ways—we might respond to it negatively or positively. As a culture, all but the extremist groups seem to have accepted that people are people and deserve equal treatment. On the religious front, however, we lag far behind. Religions often make universal claims, and if a universal claim is truly universal no variation can be accepted. Our deep-seated distrust of those different from ourselves often finds its release in the guise of religion. No other human institution claims a divine prerogative for abusing others. Some people would admit that their animosity stems from basic human motives. If they act upon it, they wind up imprisoned. If, on the other hand, it becomes a crusade with divine standards proudly waving, the perpetrator is more likely to run for public office than to be sequestered in jail. Religion thrives on double standards. Until we find an objective way to assess them (those who have ears, let them hear) we will find ourselves dealing with unreasonable religious demands until our genocidal distrust spreads to the entire remainder of the world.

Timing God

Two weeks in a row now God has made it into the pages of Time magazine. You’d think he was Rick Perry or something (no insult to God intended). This week’s Commentary, written by Harvard physicist Lisa Randall, argues for the importance of believing what science forces us to conclude. The world is warming up, ice caps are melting, and those in low-lying regions are in hot water. I am fully in agreement with her sentiments, but it’s the practicality that bothers me. Not the practicality of listening to science—that’s just common sense—but the practicality of doing so in a world where religion reigns. Despite cries of oppression and suppression and repression—just about any pression you choose—religions dominate the world. What particular brand you prefer does not matter; the fact is most people are religious. Randall believes that religion and science must learn to live together. Her problem is that she is looking at it rationally.

Science has given us excellent leads on tracing the origins of religion itself. Between psychology, anthropology, sociology, and biology we’ve got a fair idea how religion came about. The same brain that shows us the way, however, has evolved with religion still intact. In short, it has learned to accept the unlearned. With our brains acting like dogs chasing their own tails, is it any wonder that as a species we are confused? We see only what we choose to. In the great, artificial landscape of Manhattan many very wealthy people traverse the streets. Every day I see suits that would cost my entire paycheck casually strolling up Madison Avenue. I also see the beggars in the same doorways day after day, blending in with their surroundings. The solution of choice is to pretend they aren’t there, to not accept the evidence of our eyes. The wealthy have a knack for it, it seems. And when they work their way into politics their vision doesn’t improve much.

The problem that Randall points out is very real and deadly serious. Trouble is, those who pretend not to see are among the best actors on the planet. Faced with incontrovertible evidence the rational mind has no choice but to acquiesce. Religion, however, offers the perfect escape clause. If global warming discomforts you too much try fanning yourself with a Bible. Soon the excess degrees will simply melt away. And when the religious enemies of science find themselves sitting on the ocean floor like the victims of the Titanic, they too will have the satisfaction of knowing that they were privileged above all people for the time they had on earth. Everyone wins. The insatiably greedy and the abjectly poor both share a spot on an overheated planet. And if the pattern holds true we’ll evolve eyes to read under water, along with our gills, so that we can continue to read our waterlogged Bibles to find out what’s coming next.

Iceberg? What iceberg?

Dark Materials

After three years we have finally finished Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy. The Golden Compass, a fantastic story made into a very disappointing movie, followed the adventures of Lyra as she struggled against the insidious designs of the Magisterium, Pullman’s not-so-subtle code for the church. The story picked up again when Lyra met Will in The Subtle Knife and revolves back to the Garden of Eden in The Amber Spyglass. It becomes clear early in the book that Lyra is a type of Eve, about to open a Pandora’s box for the entire universe. Along the way Metatron and the symbols of the old religion, including God, die. Detractors like to hurl accusations of atheism at the author, although Pullman tends to call himself agnostic. Whatever label is pasted to him, the fact is the message of the trilogy is profoundly in keeping with what is purported to be the message of Jesus. Not to put too fine a point on it, the message is “Christian.”

Of course, these days that word has to be qualified. “Christian” has been co-opted by so many special interests theologies that its vagueness is useful for little more than winning presidential elections. Part of the difficulty begins with the fact that we don’t have any objective way to assess what Jesus actually said. The earliest canonical Gospel, Mark, was written some three decades after the events that it recounts. There can be no doubt that Matthew and Luke borrowed heavily from Mark while John, written much later, blazed his own trail. Some of the statements attributed to Jesus in these variant accounts differ, but the basic idea seems to be: love others, try not to harm each other, and be willing to be the victim once in a while. These precepts permeate that story of Lyra and Will as they flee from an institutionalized church that seeks to destroy them. Yes, the parable is transparent here and even today many would-be rulers understand the power in the blood of the lamb. Accusations of someone being non-Christian can turn a red tide against them.

Ironically, today “Christian” often has the connotation of intolerance and lack of forgiveness. We see the wealthy and powerful adopting the rhetoric when it suits their purposes but refusing to live by its principles when the poor reveal their underprivileged faces. Taking Jesus out of context they like to say, “the poor will always be with you.” As if Jesus never spoke a harsh word to the wealthy. Something that Pullman makes abundantly clear is that power corrupts. The church in his books is not evil, but corrupt. It is too powerful for its own good. Above all, the books are a tale of growing up. Lyra realizes the danger that the Magisterium poses, and fights it with the conviction of the young. She learns to love and liberates the dead. She learns the pain of loss. Indeed, her sacrifice is for the salvation of the universe. Sounds like something Jesus might have approved of—when he wasn’t busy lining the pockets of the wealthy, that is.

Lead us not into Dominion

Christian dominionists emulate the Roman Empire, it seems. The Viewpoint in last week’s Time magazine, entitled “In God We Trust,” points out several of the objectives of the dominionist camp. Taking their cue from a decidedly modern and western understanding of Genesis 1, this sect believes the human control over nature to be a divine mandate in which our species dominates the world, with divine approval. As Jon Meacham points out, that dominion does not end at other animal species, but includes control of the “non-Christian” as defined by their own standard. This non-negotiable “Christianity” is a religion guided by utter selfishness and self-absorption. So thorough is this directive that those indoctrinated in it cannot recognize Christians that do not share its perspective as part of the same dogmatic species. It is a frightening religious perspective for a nation founded on the principle of religious freedom.

Rehearsing the rhetoric from Rick Perry’s “the Response” rally, Meacham rightly points out that when dominionists quote the Bible it is most important to note what the Bible does not say. Herein lies the very soul of the movement—filling in the void where God does not talk with human desires and ambitions. As any good marketer knows, however, packaging can sell the product. Introduce a rhetoric that claims to be biblical to a nation where most people have never read the Bible and smell the recipe for success. People want to believe, even if what they think they believe is not what it claims to be. Christianity is claimed by so many vastly differing factions as to have been drained of its meaning. This is the danger in the game of injecting religion into politics. Surely the Perrys and Palins and Bachmanns know what they believe, but they do not say it aloud, for their Christianity does not coincide with the various forms of the religion advocated by the churches historically bearing the torch of Christ’s teachings, insofar as they might be determined.

Dominionism is nothing new. Even the most pristine believer must see that Constantine had more than a warm fuzzy feeling in his heart when he adopted a foreign religion and fed it to his empire. No, Christianity was an effective, non-violent means of control as well as a way of achieving life after death. Rome was nothing without dominion. The parallels with the United States have been noted by analysts time and again. As we watch the posturing of political candidates wearing some form of their faith on their sleeves, the unsuspecting never question what might be up those sleeves. It is fairly certain that when the parties sit down at the table and the cards are dealt, it won’t be Bibles that we find scattered there. This is not a kingdom of God’s making. When dominionists take over all others must scan the horizon for the advent of the Visigoths who will not be dominated.

Brain Death

The computer revolution has spoiled some of the wonder associated with old films that had been formerly staged with cheap props and poorly written dialogue. (Well, computer literacy has not always improved the dialogue, in all fairness.) Nowhere is this more apparent in the science-fiction/horror genre where CGI has made the impossible pedestrian. There’s little we’re not capable of believing. Back in the fifties and early sixties when even color film often went over budget, some real groaners emerged. Over the weekend I watched one of the movies at the front of the class for poorly executed. The Brain that Wouldn’t Die, however, is experiencing something of a renaissance with a stage musical coming out next month in New York based on this campy classic. Most horror movies don’t really scare me much, probably due to overexposure. The Brain that Wouldn’t Die, however, creeped me out in an unexpected way. Daring toward exploitation status (the movie was shot in 1959 but not released for three years), the “protagonist” is Dr. Bill Cortner who specializes in transplants. When his girlfriend Jan is decapitated in an automobile accident, Cortner keeps her head alive while seeking a body onto which to transplant it. Ogling over girls in a strip club, or even stalking them from his car while they’re walking down the street, the doctor imagines what features he’d like grafted onto his girlfriend’s still living head.

Campy to a nearly fatal degree, the film is nevertheless disturbing on many levels simultaneously. Although I was born the year the film was released, I was raised to consider both genders as equal. The unadulterated sexism of a man grocery shopping for the body he wants stuck onto his girlfriend’s head was so repellant that I reached for the remote more than once. A bit of overwritten dialogue, however, stayed my hand. Kurt, the obligatorily deformed lab assistant, while arguing with Cortner declares that the human soul is part in the head, yet partially in the heart. By placing a head on another body, the soul is fractured. Now here was a piece of theological finesse unexpected in such a poverty of prose. The question of the location of the soul has long troubled theologians, an inquiry complicated by the growth of biological science. Heart transplants are common today, but the resulting people are in no way monstrous. The amorphous soul, theologians aver, is non-material yet resides within a specific biological entity. Some have even suggested that you can capture its departure by weighing a dying body at the moment of death. Others suggest no soul exists—it is a mere projection of consciousness. Cortner, however, once his eyes have opened the possibilities, can’t look back.

Our social consciousness has grown considerably since the late 1950s. Politicians and Tea Partiers who hold that era up as a paradigm of sanity do so at the price of half the human race. On the outside with the oiled hair, polished shoes, spotless automobiles, society seemed clean cut and orderly. Women, however, were relegated to inferior roles while men made the rules. Life was less complicated then. We knew who was in charge. Or did we? As a species that has evolved via sexual reproduction, it has taken us surprisingly long to realize that both genders are essential to humanity. We still tolerate gender disparity in pay scales, often shored up with the tired excuse that pregnancy and childbirth disrupt “productivity” and therefore female efforts are worth less than male—never changing due to biology. Such trumped-up excuses ring as hollow as a head without a body. Many Neo-Cons will even use the Bible to support it. John Q. Public (always male, please note), they insist, yearns for the “good old days.” The days they desire, however, were days of cheap horror and unrealistic dialogue. If they can watch The Brain that Wouldn’t Die without flinching, our future is bleak indeed.

Springing up Moses

“Springsteen’s work and person invite analysis in terms of the biblical themes of exodus and promised land,” so wrote Kate McCarthy in “Deliver Me from Nowhere: Bruce Springsteen and the Myth of the American Promised Land” (conveniently in a Routledge title, God in the Details: American Religion in Popular Culture, second edition, 2011). Having just finished Bruce Feiler’s America’s Prophet (not Routledge), I am attuned to the exodus theme at the moment. Feeling an unaccountable, personal connection to the other Bruce (Springsteen), I have felt the sense of exile in his songs since I was a teenager. I had no idea who Springsteen was when “Born to Run” made it to the charts. Living in a nowhere town at the time (population less than 1000), I felt the burning need for a personal exodus that eventually landed me in the largest city in the country. But still the sense of exile remains.

Lest readers be too confused, it might be politic to point out that the biblical concept of exodus likely had its origins in the Exile. Without rehearsing too much history, the Babylonian Empire, under Nebuchadrezzar, conquered Jerusalem in either 587 or 586 BCE, leading to the deportation of a significant number of Judahites who would become, over a generation, the “Jews.” These people were exiles, forced to live under the watchful eye of a political overlord with whom they shared only the most basic of heritages. Their religions had grown apart over the centuries, and as the Jews began to think back on their homeland, the exodus came to mind. Archaeological evidence for an exodus of biblical proportions (literally) does not exist. Why, then, the story of the exodus? Did not the desire to return home involve crossing the desert, with a divinely appointed leader? One who carried the law (Torah) with him? When Ezra led returnees home in the fifth/fourth century, he had the Torah in hand. Like Moses, he led the people out of bondage under the Persian plan. Exile and exodus are twin children of oppressive regimes.

So, how do ancient desert wanderers come into the orbit of a very damp New Jersey, and in particular, it’s arguably most famous resident? Alienation is home. Very few teenagers don’t understand this. As we attempt to integrate them into adult life, something vital, essential, is left behind. Consider all the long-haired artists of the ‘60’s and ‘70’s who still perform, now shorn to conservative acceptability and sometimes churning out very conventional songs. The fire has gone out. It is difficult to escape exile when you carry it with you. That’s something I think Bruce understands. His look may have changed, but his message has not. America has always been a haven for exiles. Simply because an exile moves into a new setting, however, does not mean that the promised land has been reached. As McCarthy seems to be saying, and as I have often felt, the promised land disappoints. The seeking is what must persist. America may have its Moeses, but it will find, from atop Nebo, that the path is where your feet already are.

Look carefully at your prophets!

Declining Prophets

Prophets aren’t what they used to be. Was a time when you had to be real to make an impression on the world. The historical evidence for Moses is slim. So slim, in fact, that it can’t be seen. As a child learning that the Bible contained no mistakes (it does) and no contradictions (too many to count), there was never any doubt of Moses’ historicity. Charlton Heston’s iconic portrayal of the man who wouldn’t be king left little room for doubt in pliable young minds. Not bad for a man who probably never lived.

I finally got around to reading Bruce Feiler’s America’s Prophet: How the Story of Moses Shaped America. Initially I found the book difficult because I started it the day after finishing Kent Nerburn’s The Wolf at Twilight. There seemed a disingenuousness to America’s development that had been built on oppression. The retelling of sacred histories can be quite diverse. Nevertheless, Feiler’s book is well researched and compellingly written. Beginning with Columbus and coming up through the first years of the twenty-first century, Feiler shows again and again how Moses is lurking in the shadows of some of America’s grandest monuments to self.

Moses is the liberator who lays down the law. As such, nearly all the great political leaders in America’s Bible-saturated history have been compared to him. The funny thing about the actual Moses is that history’s chroniclers somehow failed to mention him. He does not appear in the annals of Egypt, where, according to Exodus, he was the near equal of Ramesses II. He is not mentioned by the political watchers among the other great powers of ancient western Asia. The Bible is all he’s got. Political commentators in early America, however, were not worried about whether he existed or not. The Bible says he did and that’s good enough.

Feiler builds a compelling case for Moses standing behind American figures and institutions. He also seems to be aware that Moses may never have walked the earth. An avenue he doesn’t explore is how entire national identities can be built on myths. Mythology gives us the meaning by which we live. Some times that mythology will include historical personages. Other times the myth must stand on its own. Moses may be one of the latter. Does it matter that Moses does not appear in history? No. He has already left his imprint, as Feiler ably demonstrates, on Columbus, the Pilgrims, George Washington, the Liberty Bell, Abraham Lincoln, the Underground Railroad, the Statue of Liberty, Martin Luther King, Jr., and even—God help us!—George W. Bush. Anyone capable of pounding a Bible loudly enough will eventually make the ranks, it seems. Ahistorical Moses has accomplished in his sleep more than historical people can ever attain. Amazing what you can achieve, real or not, with mythology on your side.

Ezekiel’s Equinox Paradox

Like the great celestial wheels of antique imagination, the seasons continue their wearisome roll across the earth. On a day long marked as a holiday among those more closely attuned to nature than most modern people in developed nations, we face the beginning of autumn. Change is in the air and already the gray skies that have predominated the eastern seaboard over weeks since Irene seem to have winter on their minds. Changes always call to mind how the human mind tends to divide what it sees into categories. The Bible is one place that this tendency is crucial. The whole scheme behind clean and unclean comes down to the need to make discrete that which nature shamelessly blends. When it comes to deity, the party line has always been (at least in the monotheistic religions) that God is like one of us. We can’t imagine human very well without gender, and so God becomes a guy. Notwithstanding protests to the contrary, early religions did take that distinction literally; divinity and masculinity were of a piece.

This fact makes it all the more intriguing when the Bible itself offers a few passages that call this orthodoxy into question. A few verses explore the trope of God as female, but they quickly back away and revert to the male God when taking on more literal terms. Hebraic culture was monistic, not dualistic. God as “spirit” was not really a possibility in the Hebrew Bible. God as a big man fits the picture better. One of the voices that claims dissent is that of Ezekiel. No surprise there—Ezekiel has been analyzed as everything from a dreamer to a dropper. Ezekiel’s understanding of God, however, is deeply imbued with temple imagery. Ezekiel was a priest without a sanctuary, and so his view of God suffered from temple vision. Nevertheless, the strange account of Ezekiel’s vision of Yahweh coming to Babylonia that opens his book demonstrates a startling lack of clarity when it comes to divine gender.

When two people meet, as psychologists have long noted, the first bit of information they attempt to discern is gender. Perhaps it’s the old fight or flight reflex from our reptilian brains, or maybe it is the opportunistic mating behavior that so obviously characterizes our species, but we are very uncomfortable when we can’t make a gender assignment. It is the whole premise behind Saturday Night Live‘s old sketch of “It’s Pat.” When Ezekiel first espies God he describes the deity in terms of glowing metal. But notice that he begins, “And I saw as the colour of amber, as the appearance of fire round about within it, from the appearance of his loins even upward, and from the appearance of his loins even downward, I saw as it were the appearance of fire, and it had brightness round about” (1.27). Beginning at the loins the prophet looks the deity up and down and concludes God is like fire. This image does not long survive the vision, for Ezekiel quickly reverts to masculine imagery for God. Even in the face of evidence that God is not gendered, the faithful must make him so, for the age-old appurtenance of male superiority suffers immeasurably without the camaraderie of God.

Bibles and Broomsticks

Continuing my musings on Kent Nerburn’s The Wolf at Twilight, I must pause for a moment on chapter eight, “Bibles and Broomsticks.” I must confess to having learned quite a bit in this account, and among the more disturbing facts is that government agents routinely removed Lakota children from their homes so that they would be sent to boarding schools to learn “white ways.” Many of these schools were run by Christian groups; in “Dan’s” case, the school was Roman Catholic. Confused and frightened, away from home, these children were compelled to give up their traditional ways so that they would be more accommodating to the people who had taken over their land. In the midst of the difficulties faced, Dan makes some pointed observations about the difference between what he had been taught as a child and what the establishment schools proclaimed. In punishment for speaking his own language, Dan was once sentenced to kneel on several marbles while holding a heavy Bible out at the end of each outstretched arm. Later he reveals that many of the children were sexually abused by the priests out on the prairie, far from the help of any non-religious adult.

Despite the grimness of this scenario, a parable may lurk for those of us who live in supposedly more enlightened times. The Bible being used as a physical weapon may be rare today, but it certainly has lost no force as a metaphorical one. We see this constantly when overly eager televangelists and politicians unilaterally declare that natural disasters are of divine origin, the god of the black book punishing the country he founded. Their logic twists like the rubber band on the balsam toy airplane of their mental depth. Complexity is the work of the devil when God can be blamed for every misfortune against those of whom they disapprove. The truly sad part is that they are continuing the oppression that was behind the mistreatment of the Native Americans. Books only enlighten minds when they are opened. Making a Bible into a cross is about as pagan an idea as can be conceived (my apologies to any pagans reading this—pagans are not nearly so barbarous).

At one point Dan explains to Nerburn that the Creator’s lessons could be found by observing nature, such as listening to the song of a bird. He said, “We could have taught your people, too. But they never listened…They just looked in their Black Book. They said it had everything they needed to learn the Creator’s lessons.” We are starting to learn this lesson, but very, very slowly. It was not by accident that the Navi in Avatar were portrayed as symbolic of Native Americans while the greedy industrialists mining their planet considered it manifest destiny to take charge. The Bible does not have all the answers. Those which it does contain in no way justify the abuse of others for one’s personal gain. It is one of history’s legitimate mysteries how an intelligent people can shut out reason when personal gain is at stake. It is easier to do, apparently, when there is a divine book to blame. When the Bible is used to punish others, however, it is always a safe bet that it has never been opened.

Differing worldviews

Who Are the Wolves?

Last week I finished reading The Wolf at Twilight by Kent Nerburn. To be transparent here, I’d picked up the book at a Borders’ closing sale based largely on the subtitle: An Indian Elder’s Journey through a Land of Ghosts and Shadows. It sounded like a good book for autumnal reading. The first chill breezes of fall swept through Manhattan last week, and I curled up with the book on the bus. I’m not sure what I expected, but what I found was nothing short of epiphanic. Those of us who’ve spent long years in religious studies, no matter what specific branch, know of the deeply spiritual writings of Native Americans. Black Elk Speaks is a classic often required in Religion 101 and it is still as potent today as it was back when first penned. The danger, which Nerburn clearly states, is in assuming a mystical kind of stereotype for a very real people who have continually been—and still are—hidden away as an embarrassment of the United States’ melting pot image.

The Wolf at Twilight is a follow-up to Nerburn’s Neither Wolf nor Dog, a book that I have not read. In that original narrative, Nerburn describes his encounters with “Dan,” a Native American, Lakota elder. The Wolf at Twilight is the story of how Dan finds closure in locating the resting place of his sister, from whom he was separated at childhood. The journey, spiritual though it may be, is a wrenching one. Speaking from my experience, many children grow up in America learning only cursory pieces of the large and tragic mosaic of how the Native Americans were treated by own government. The story of Dan is one of clashing worldviews where any system that stands against the ideal of private ownership—sadly embodied in the Christian settlers of this nation—is inevitably shredded, and, if embarrassing enough, hidden from future generations. Our ancestors did a great disservice to our fellow human beings, in the name of religion. Manifest destiny had an overly healthy dose of the divine right of Christians in it. An idea poisonous to anyone who might challenge the concept of personal gain.

As a neophyte in this field of reading, I was sickened by much of what I read here. It will take more than a single post to outline some of the more poignant inconsistencies between Christian practice and preaching perpetrated upon those who were here before us. A people forcefully converted to a religion that was openly oppressive to them reveals the dark underbelly of missionary zeal and the truth of the evils religion can hide. Or even justify. Often Dan decries the religion that believes all the answers are in a black book. What was done to his own family in the name of Christianity led to several restless nights for this reader. Kent Nerburn writes with the conviction of a man haunted by an experience of rough reconciliation. From the title, I had expected maybe werewolves or specters to roam this book, but instead what I found was much more terrifying. It was the naked lust for personal gain—a monster that no crucifix or prayer ribbon can ever banish or dispel.

Material Whirled

With the moon and Jupiter waltzing slowly so high in the sky, radiating such brilliance early in the morning over this past week, it is understandable how ancient people came to see the gods as material objects. The course of progression seems to have been physical gods to spiritual gods: the earliest deities ate, drank, made love, fought. They were of the same substance as humans, or at least of the same psychological makeup. The Egyptians, Zoroastrians, and Greeks all toyed with ideas of beings of “spirit”—non-corporeal entities that did not participate in our material world, but were able to influence it. In the world but not of it. The tremendous gulf between great goddess and material girl was born. Today that concept is taken for granted, especially in western religions. We are locked into physicality while God is free to come and go.

Many religions respond to this by suggesting that we should look beyond the physical to the majesty hidden from biological eyes. And yet, physical creatures that we are, we are drawn back to material means to demonstrate our spirituality. One of the perks of working for a publisher is the constant exposure to new ideas. At Routledge I have been learning about the rising interest in material religion: the manifestation of religion through physical objects and rituals. This aspect of religious life easily devolves into a cheapening of faith into mass-produced, religious knickknacks and kitsch. Some mistake this for the real thing. While living in Wisconsin, my family used to visit the spectacular Holy Hill, the site of a Carmelite monastery atop a large glacial moraine. On a clear day you can see Milwaukee from the church tower. It is a large tourist draw.

No visit to such a shrine would be complete without the obligatory stop at the gift shop. Even the non-believer feels compelled to buy some incredibly tasteless artifact to keep them grounded in reality. Many of the items—giant glow-in-the-dark rosaries, maudlin mini-portraits of the blessed virgin Mary (BVM as the insiders call her, not to be confused with BVD) and the crucified Lord on all manner of crosses, line the walls and shelves. This commercialization is not limited to the Catholic tradition. Evangelical groups realize the importance of branding as well, passing out cheap merchandise (or better, selling it) with Bible verses emblazoned on it. These signs of faith sell themselves, but they blur the sacred distinction between human and divine. Does religion point to a reality behind the physical? This is its claim, but what is the harm in making a bit of cash on the side, just in case?

A Peculiar Resurrection

Although it is not my regular practice to splash melodrama across my blog, my recent experience with losing the Internet for four days prompts me to consider resurrection. After consulting with three technical agents and giving my laptop a kind of electronic enema, I am now once more able to access that mysterious nirvana called the world-wide web (and even the www2, whatever that is). This experience has taught me something about the human craving for resurrection. I began this blog in July of 2009. Since then I’ve added new entries almost daily. Even in places as remote as the northwoods of Idaho, if my laptop receives a signal, I can post my unorthodox thoughts for the world to read (at least the very small cross-section of the world that stumbles upon my pages). Being forced to go without Internet connectivity in New York City, of all places!, was itself a surreal experience. I literally wept in frustration. No one could help. This morning the Verizon tech assistant had me connect via an Ethernet cable and with his omnipotent hand remotely guiding my cursor, brought these dry bones back to life. Praise the landline!

The writers of the Hebrew Bible did not believe in resurrection. The book of Daniel, written just before the death of Antiochus IV Epiphanes (“the manifestation” as he humbly called himself) in 164 BCE, is the earliest hint that Jewish thinkers were beginning to consider the resurrection concept. The Egyptians had, many centuries earlier, played with the idea. They eventually developed it into a national pastime—building pyramids to ensure the king got to live again—but other ancient people were more pragmatic. Death was the end, so live this life to the fullest. As far as we can tell, Jesus taught his followers about the possibility of life beyond life. Some take that to mean a literal reconstituting of life after death while others understand it metaphorically. Both ideas can be, broadly speaking, labeled “Christian.” Some Jewish thinkers accept resurrection, others do not. Other religions, as mentioned earlier this week, go for the cyclical approach of reincarnation.

Ezekiel, according to chapter 37 of his surreal book, saw a valley of dry bones. These people were, as the Munchkin coroner croons, “really most sincerely dead.” Ezekiel did not believe in resurrection. If he had the miracle would have been lost on him. Reviving the dead was considered the most extreme, impossible feat in his entire (if limited) universe. The people of Judah, defeated by Babylonia, carried into exile, their temple—God in their midst—destroyed, believed it was all over. There was nothing to bring home into such a desolate landscape. Some suggest Ezekiel was schizophrenic or perhaps addicted to psychedelic mushrooms. In reality, I believe, he owned a MacBook that could not connect to the Internet. Once that divine signal from on high penetrated the arid air of exilic lassitude, he rebooted and without the aid of any drugs, saw God in all his/her glory. (Ezekiel refuses to give God a gender, but that is a topic for another post.)

Confessions of a Luddite

I am not now, nor have I ever been, a techie. I learned my computer skills on a Mac, and I have been an adoring follower of Apple ever since. Every time I see Windows at work, I sneer at how they try to emulate the real thing: the Mac operating environment. Only clunkier. It is like watching hand-drawn cartoons in high-definition. Regular readers of this blog expect a daily post, but my valiant laptop, alas, had what is akin to a religious experience and I’m losing it. I’ve done my blog posts from that laptop for nearly two years. I sometimes work on them during the long commute to New York City. When my Mac Book encountered the plethora of signals from a Manhattan office building, it froze up. At home it no longer recognizes my base-station router. With my limited technical knowledge I’ve tried every trick on the Internet that doesn’t involve some Geek God going off into jargon that a humble reader of ancient languages can’t understand. I am grieving.

Yesterday, thinking about my plight, I saw the parallels with religious experience. My laptop in my eighth-floor office is like Moses climbing Mount Sinai, but less robust than the 80-year-old prophet. Having encountered a higher being—signals from the heavens, hundreds of them—it has bowed in acquiescence. It has received an epiphany that I missed while going about my daily editing duties. When it returned home, it was not able to recognize the one signal that has been its lord and master since it was first booted up. Nothing from restarting the router to reinstalling the entire factory-set system to clearing and restricting the access to the one true network has helped. My computer, to borrow a phrase from Atwood, has gone into a fallow state. That is a kind way of saying it is a mere paperweight or doorstop.

According to the standard interpretation, that is similar to an encounter with the divine. It leaves you marked, transformed. Sometimes incapacitated. Or perhaps the correct analogy is that of idolatry. My computer has gone on after foreign gods and no longer recognizes the one who gave it birth. I have suffered through two sleepless nights because of it. I even visited the local Apple store where they suggest I clear the AirPort history. Like I know what that means. Perhaps I have the analogy all wrong. Maybe my computer is the deity and I am the acolyte. It is mysterious and powerful and I am left in tears after an encounter with it. But really, it feels like a friend has died. I haven’t been able to post my quirky observations. I have to borrow a friend’s computer. Am I a prophet or just another Luddite awaiting my own theophany?

Unanswered Questions

Attempting to write a blog post everyday on the single subject of religion can be a challenge when you don’t share the freedom of the Internet with most faculty. Once in a while a topic just drops in your lap like a gift from God. It helps that New York City is such a religious place. Despite the many critics who claim New York is godless and completely secular, it my experience there are a goodly number of the godly in it. It is not uncommon to see street preachers on a sunny day (apparently God has less need of saving on rainy days). On my way home from work today I was presented with a tract in which “God Answers Your Questions.” It was a little odd that the acolyte with the tracts knew what my questions were, but since the leaflet quotes extensively from the Bible it must be true. From this pamphlet I learned what my hidden question were.

The first question, rather flatteringly, states, “I am young yet, and likely to live for a long time.” Once I’ve been buttered up, the other shoe drops: “Why should I think of eternal things now?” Rather than the Bazooka Joe Bible verse, I thought I might field that one myself. I grew up thinking about eternal things on a nearly daily basis. By the time I was in high school I was somewhat creepy about it. In a college course on the psychology of death and dying, we were asked how often we thought of death. My honest answer was, “every day.” Now, a person with that kind of background may be overthinking this a bit. Death is a relatively simple matter: you need do nothing to achieve it eventually. I had been taught that if you worked to make sure you were honest and true, it would be rewarded. I was fired from my first job for being true to what I’d learned with intellectual honesty. I thought about death a lot.

Death, given its finality, is a universal religious concern. Some religions offer an afterlife—generally it is not an option—while others do not. The life well-lived is its own reward. Others suggest what seems to me a more insidious option: reincarnation. Those religions that take this approach are generally honest up front, stating outright that life is suffering. Reincarnation is goal-directed: break the cycle and achieve Nirvana. And there is no reason to flatter people with the long life yet ahead of them. The evangelist ignored my white whiskers and gave me an anonymous tip for salvation. Perhaps all I really needed was a sip of cold water. Having spent the better part of one life thinking about its end, reincarnation could be a cruel reprisal indeed. I don’t need to worry, however, because I’ve got the answers—along with the questions—right here in my pocket.