Twin Towers

The newly opened World Trade Center memorial in Manhattan is truly a solemn place. Staring into the seemingly endless holes into which the water forever pours, one feels the emptiness of loss like a thousand graveyards. Like watching the Titanic sink from a lifeboat. In the chilly late October morning hundreds were huddled about, looking at those reflecting pools with an undefined sadness in their eyes and a sense of frustration in their souls. So much loss. And for what? The American way of life has its towering foibles as well as its nobility. The protesters of Occupy Wall Street are mere blocks away in Zuccotti Park, reminding the nation that we have forgotten the principles of human decency even while we honor the fallen dead. It seems an appropriate epitaph for All Hallows Eve—a peaceful park where hundreds died just blocks from where hundreds camp in the cold. It is not too late to stop this ship from striking the iceberg.

Ground Zero

The symbol of peace, given to us by the Bible, is the olive branch. Actually the olive branch comes from the story of the flood; it is less a sign of peace than it is a sign that some of us have survived the wrath of God. Read into that what you will. The olive branch only comes after all but eight people pay the ultimate sacrifice. It is peace on the terms of a vengeful deity. Near the center of the memorial, one tree stands out. It is not an olive tree. After the devastating attacks of 9/11, workers found a living Calleri pear tree among the rubble. The scorched and battered plant was taken to a nursery where it recovered. It stands now in the midst of the peaceful reflecting pools, bearing not olives, but pears. The tree was saved by human effort, a symbol of peace, survival, and endurance.

A different kind of tower

I spoke with one of the protestors in Occupy Wall Street, and gave him encouragement. I suffered unemployment for long years when the weight of the flood crushed me to my own ocean floor. Loss and more loss. I was moved to tears in the World Trade Center memorial. The decision not to build again on the site where the Twin Towers stood is a symbolic statement to those who believe that evil triumphs in the end. The god of those who destroy others in the name of their faith is the god who destroys innocent and guilty alike in worldwide floods. This is a god who offers people with no knowledge tempting fruit that they are not permitted to eat. Nowhere in the Bible does it state the species of the tree of knowledge. Is there anyone left innocent enough to tell? Artists like to use an apple, an idea based on the similarity between the Latin words for evil and apple. I believe that loss of innocence was the price of maturity, and I believe the tree of knowledge might just have been a Calleri pear.


Zombie Jesus

It must still be October. Despite a snowstorm before Halloween (one of nature’s trick-or-treats), all the signs are still there. My daughter showed me a Venn diagram yesterday, during a whole-day marathon of putting plastic around our drafty old windows, showing the intersection of three “monster” traits: resurrected from the dead, local townspeople fear and revere him, and convert as many mindless followers as possible. The creatures that inhabit this eerie universe are Dracula, Frankenstein, Zombie, and, where all three intersect, Jesus Christ. Obviously this was just for a laugh, but interestingly, one of the traits of Penn Jillette’s book, God, No!, is his rather frequent reference to Jesus as a zombie. Then I clicked over to Religion Dispatches, and the lead story is headlined, “Praying to the Zombie Jesus.” Ours is a world of mindless, quick connections where the compelling idea of resurrection has lost its appeal. Despite our religious culture—or perhaps because of it—we have come to see Christianity as just one more peddler of a wonderful, disturbing idea.

As regular readers of this blog know, I find the abuse of religious ideals inexcusable. Using one’s faith to beat another down is just plain wrong. Nevertheless, to focus on the folkloristic aspect of resurrection (or perhaps it is a metaphor) is to miss what drew the very earliest followers to Jesus. Before the idea of rising from the dead came a message that people should love each other and treat one another with respect and dignity. By the end of the first century of the common era, or perhaps as early as Paul, that idea grew to be a quasi-magical resurrection from the dead. No longer were women counted as equals among the followers of Jesus, and no longer were wealthy compelled to give it all up. Paul’s faith looked to a future world, beyond death, and was willing to consider this world, well, to be polite, crap. The reasons for this transformation are legion: the persecution that Christianity was undergoing, the failure of an apocalypse to take place, the disenfranchisement of the believers. They needed something to look forward to.

Zombies are likely a passing fad. When we start seeing books of zombie Christmas carols, zombie haikus, and zombie apocalypse survivors’ guides, we seem to be reaching the peak of the plateau. The zombie is mindless, rapacious, and entirely selfish. It will not go away. It is the perfect denizen of October. When I stare into those uncomprehending eyes, and see the disturbing lack of compassion and the desire to consume human brains, I start to make connections of my own. Analysts often describe zombies as the ghoul of the common folk. But all these characteristics taken together suggest that perhaps the month in which to expect zombies is November. Surviving another snowpocalypse, earthquake, and hurricane, the human spirit is difficult to dominate. And yet, when the polls open up in the darker season of the year, zombies will rise. The plastic on my windows does nothing to stop these chills.

Borrowed from a friend's site


Although it may seem the right season for witches, the revival of serious witchcraft in the religion of Wicca is a much misunderstood and maligned phenomenon. One of the persistant myths that many religions continue to perpetuate is that they go back to the very beginning. If any religion might rightly make that claim, it would be something close to Wicca, or nature religion. The fact is, however, all religions have histories and beginnings, and radical reshaping is not at all unusual along the way. In the western hemisphere, many like to claim a privileged position for Christianity. Certianly in the political world, such a claim is justified. Christianity shaped Europe, and therefore, by extention, all previous colonies of the European powers. The Christianity that shaped Europe, however, was the political powerhouse of Roman Catholicism, and later, reformed versions of the faith. The Catholicism of the Middle Ages, as may be discerned at a mere glance, shares little in common with the ideals given in the mouth of Jesus by the Gospels.

I just finished reading the provocative Routledge title, Wicca and the Christian Heritage: Ritual, Sex and Magic, by Joanne Pearson (2007). I learned a considerable bit about the modern origins of what is recognized as a tax-free (the sign of any true religion) belief system of Wicca. As Pearson points out, this Wicca dates back to the 1950s. What really caught my attention, however, was the tortured religious history of the movement’s founders. Enamored of Anglo-Catholicism (a form of ceremonial I had been force-fed for over a decade at Nashotah House), the founders of the religion (both intentional and unintentional) craved the seal of antiquity. Many of the players invented denomination after denomination of Christianity, sometimes acquiring ordinations and consecrations by hapless Eastern Orthodox bishops who misunderstood where they were spewing their blessings, in the attempt to show it was real Christianity. You need a roadmap to keep all the blind alleys straight. In the end, Wicca derived from an unorthodox combination of orthodoxy, Masonry, and Spiritualism. It is a wonder that modern Wicca appears as sane as it does.

Pearson’s book is not a full-fledged history, but more of a background to such a history. Many Nashotah House affilates, I’m sure, would rage to see time-honored names from Anglo-Catholic history alongside those often considered charlatans and posers. But when it comes to religion, even the most orthodox are very creative. Perhaps each gesture, vestment and accessory has a pedigree. None of them go back to a dirt-poor peasant who told his followers to give all material goods away. We may be willing to accept many things in the name of religion, but let’s not go overboard here. Not even the literalists do that.

Conversation with Solomon

“The rights and interests of the laboring man will be protected and cared for, not by labor agitators, but by the Christian men to whom God in his infinite wisdom has given control of the property interests of the country,” wrote George Baer of the Philadelphia and Reading Coal and Iron Company. In 1902. Along with Melville I’ve been thinking about old Ecclesiastes and his gloomy prognostications. The writer of this neglected book of the Bible claimed that nothing was new under the sun; what is has been before. I read the quote above in David DeKok’s Fire Underground (on which more later). I thought of Occupy Wall Street and the supposed great wisdom of the “Christian men” that God “himself” has appointed to towers of wealth for our benefit. As long as we keep our mouths shut and our hind-quarters out of Zuccotti Park. The data, Old Solomon, I must admit, are depressing. The staggering wealth of the top one percent is beyond unconscionable. Solomon? Are you still listening? After all, as one of the Lord’s chosen, Solomon was also a king. In his day, according to the book of Kings, silver was as common as the dust in the streets. Is that rain, or just drool from the towers of power?

Old Ecclesiastes said the more that things change, the more they stay the same. He also inspired the Byrds’ “Turn, Turn, Turn.” As a society we have become reluctant to turn. Where did all that wealth go, Solomon? Did it not go to the temple and the palace? Seems there was a Religious Right even back then. As soon as Solomon died the common folk revolted. The chosen people split into two kingdoms that were never again reunited. Turn, turn, turn. The Christian men to whom God has given control have abandoned their posts. They’ve taken the cash and shared with their friends. Yes, America has kings. When the disparity is so great no other name applies.

“Cast your bread upon the waters,” Old Ecclesiastes says, “and it will come back to you in time of want.” I doubt that Solomon was ever unemployed. After working for “the Christian men” for over a decade, I was cast out on the waters, never to return. My stint of unemployment wavered in and out for six years. And I am one of the lucky ones. In that time I don’t recall feeling any wealth trickling down. I sure spent a lot getting the requisite degrees for a job that never materialized. So I sit down to read Ecclesiastes. Those who are addicted to wealth and power simply never took the words of the old sage to heart. We can excuse them, I suppose, since most clergy ignore him as well. When in need of some honesty, it is nice to know there’s a book in the Bible that is unafraid to utter the truth.

Great Gaps Be

Before hanging out on my bookshelf, and countless others like it, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Dorothy Parker and their friends (including Harpo Marx) gathered at the Algonquin Hotel. Apparently without effort they forged a living at a trade to which I idly apply myself each day before dawn. They wrote the America of their era. There are those who say Parker haunts the Algonquin, but in truth her words, like those of her companions, are her legacy. Some of us dream of making a life out of words, but this is not much valued in our society where even concepts must have salability in order to be deemed worth the time. If it had not developed independently millennia ago, religion could never have emerged in a capitalist society. Certainly there are religions that barely qualify for the non-profit status they claim, but the founders of religions in antiquity were believers in idea, sacred words, invaluable concepts.

No society pours much money into what it truly values. Religions were never designed to be money-making ventures. Those of us who work in the book trade know that authors would write even if they never got paid a penny (and many of them don’t). Art, like religion, is an expression of the depths of human need. In a Wall Street society, however, those who don’t manufacture something, or get rich from those who do, are merely taking up space. We measure the success of a person by the chattels they own, not the linear feet of bookshelves they can fill. But when we need to find a human touch, a book is a far better companion than a checkbook.

When I walk past the fashionable Algonquin just as the sun is beginning to penetrate the dark valleys of Manhattan, I sense that two worlds are attempting to coexist here simultaneously. One is a world of separation and power. The other is a world where Harpo Marx sits at your table. F. Scott Fitzgerald gave us the Jazz Age, defining the brief interlude when the world wasn’t at war, defining with words that just about every high school kid will eventually read. Fitzgerald was never good with money, and even The Great Gatsby was not an immediate success. The walls of privilege are locked with stout doors indeed. Such a situation calls for the unparalleled wit of Dorothy Parker, but for some scenarios the last word properly belongs to Harpo Marx.

Zombie Reality

The origins of zombies notwithstanding, they are the autumnal monster of choice in a post-modern society. They are the symbol of secular resurrection—no faith commitment is required, no pristine, moral lifestyle. Resurrection happens to you by accident, a chemical, a disease, cosmic radiation—whatever the cause it is not divine. And the zombie is fair game for the release of violent aggression; already dead, there is no moral imperative to keep them alive and well. Each year the mass of zombie walks increases where children and adults alike become the living dead for a day. Macabre? Indeed. It seems that the very word “macabre” may have come into English from Hebrew. Hebrew words are based (mostly) on triliteral roots, words with three unchanging consonants. The Classical Hebrew word for “grave” is based on the root q-b-r. The prefixed m is often the preposition “from.” Macabre, morphed through Latin and French, could go back to the root meaning “from the grave.” Literally, the source of zombies.

Resurrection is among the most poignant of human hopes. Religions often assure us that death is not final, but we can never know that this side of the veil. Those we love go away, we hope, to a better place than this. It is no surprise that the largest zombie walk in the country is in Asbury Park. We can imagine better. Why can’t God?

According to Wade Davis, there is a powder that vodoun priests use to zombify a person. This involuntary treatment does not actually prolong life, nor does it really resurrect the dead. It is, like many religious treatments, a show of faith. In The Serpent and the Rainbow Davis describes how psychosomatic attacks span the globe. All they require is belief. If a person believes in curses or the evil eye, the results can be physical and fatal. We create our own reality. Over the weekend I watched What the Bleep Do We Know? again. I sometimes showed this movie to my classes. Here physicists and gurus together affirm that we create our own reality moment by moment.

Zombies have migrated from the realm of religion to secular society. It is hard to imagine our modern world without them. They are cut from the same cloth as All Souls Day, reminding us of our mortality and suggesting that there might be something more. It is a reality we create ourselves.

Serpents, Rainbows, and Black Pearls

Riding on a bus with a bunch of coughing commuters may not be the best setting for reading about poisons and zombies. I am also aware that Wade Davis has come into criticism by some of his professional colleagues and that the movie based on his book, The Serpent and the Rainbow, may have led to an aneurism or two among scholars of Haiti. Nevertheless, Borders was closing down and a copy of the book remained on the shelf for an insanely low price, and October would soon be upon us. This past week I read Davis’ intriguing account of his experience with real-life zombies and the fascinating religion of vodoun. A number of issues were raised by his account, not least of which is that the feared religion of “voodoo” is a direct result of the evils of African slavery that brought indigenous gods into the realm of Christianity, and mixed them vigorously. My first “exposure” to vodoun was in the old James Bond movie, Live and Let Die. It terrified me as a child, and even with rational eyes, I’m not sure I fare much better as an adult.

No matter what one thinks of Wade Davis and his work, The Serpent and the Rainbow is a fascinating work. One of the most interesting aspects Davis raises is the continuing issue of defining death. Premature burial may sounds like the hysteria of a Poe-induced nightmare, but, as Davis shows, most methods of measuring death are susceptible to being fooled. Those who are termed “zombies,” in the vodoun sense of the word, are people declared dead by medical professionals, yet who are later found, after their burials, very much alive. Many readers will find this difficult to accept, but it is a phenomenon that goes back to Seabrook’s swashbuckling adventures of early last century and even before. If Davis is to be believed, it is thoroughly documented.

Paradigm shifts are seldom welcomed. We prefer to live within the comfort of the universe in which we grew up. Science and religion agree on this point—things are not what they seem. Zombies in the Walking Dead sense do not exist despite the fact that they are the kind most popularly known. We like them because they can’t hurt us; they lurch through the streets of our nightmares and our zombie walks, but they are not real. It could be, however, that our understanding of our world is woefully incomplete. Confronted with that which challenges our tidy universe, whether it be quantum physics or Haitian religion, we must consider the benefits of a mind kept open to the possibilities. Do vodoun priests in the hidden shadows of the Caribbean enslave the living dead? Disney answered with a resounding yes in Pirates of the Caribbean, but then, in Hollywood it is sometimes preferable to have the zombies in front of the screen.

Haunted Purgatory

Halloween season is a time for both pagans and evangelicals alike to tremble. Our usual local “haunted house” for charity being closed this year, my family went to the local haunted farm last night. In a nation where few of us grow up on farms, the agricultural world is already a foreign environment. And corn is a scary plant when it dries out, especially at night. The Creepy Hollow part of the farm tour was a long, rambling stumble through a corn field where costumed actors jump out at you or just as ominously shake the cornstalks as you walk by in the dark. Senses that we have long ignored leap to full attention, scanning for any possible fright. At nearly a mile long, this haunted trail was pretty intense, and I’ll admit to being glad to have seen the open field at the end. One of the props along the way was a haunted church. As I’ve noted before, religion and fear often stride hand-in-hand.

Earlier in the day, my wife had pointed out an article in the Huffington Post about the dilemma many evangelicals face when their kids want to celebrate Halloween. A holiday of Catholic and pagan origins (both feared equally by the truly staunch evangelical), Halloween is a season of dangerous influences. In response, some groups have started their own “Hell Houses” designed to show kids the horrors of Hell as they walk through a putatively non-fiction version of fear. The intention seems clear enough, although a little odd for a religion that claims to be based on love. The Hell Houses are part of an alternative holiday called “Jesus Ween” and people are encouraged to give out Bibles rather than candy. At least they got the scary book part right.

In an unrelated yet relevant story, Time projects that the seven billionth person will be born on October 31. I remember when there were just four billion of us, and my teachers began pointing out the stresses we place on our environment. Of course, those who co-opt the identity of being “pro-life” advocate for as many of our species as possible—less for God to pour out love, but better to populate Hell, apparently. The Roman Catholics share this petard with the evangelical camp, as Monty Python made famously clear in The Meaning of Life. We have overcome (largely) nature’s control on our expansion, and as Halloween, or Jesus Ween, races nearer, we have less to fear from chainsaw-wielding maniacs than we do from Bible-bearing clones who claim it is divine mandate to stress our own planet to death.

Life’s Soundtrack

Calvin once said to Hobbes, “I thought my life would seem more interesting with a musical score and a laugh track.” In many ways, our lives do have soundtracks. From my youngest days dramatic music has moved me and Jim Steinman always seemed to know just which buttons to push and strings to pull to bring it off. Growing up in humble circumstances, however, I missed the whole video craze that accompanied MTV, back when MTV still showed music. Friends would tell me about the great videos I was missing, and I let my imagination run wild. Recently, however, a friend pointed out the video of Bonnie Tyler singing the Steinman hit, “Total Eclipse of the Heart” on YouTube. This particular video brings together so much of my adult life that it seems like Steinman spent a few years inside my head. Well, maybe not that much. The song came out just as my first love was breaking up with me, back in college. I attended Grove City College, a campus that, despite its pristine Christian image, can be very gothic at night. The first chords of that song are always like a stake through my heart. Few experiences in life are as dramatic as unrequited love. Just queue up that song and I’m a college junior again.

The video, however, is set in an old-style boy’s boarding school. The setting is not far off from the antiquated campus of Nashotah House seminary, gothic both by day and by night. The imagery of the video employs English trappings of cassocks and surplices and candles along with clandestine romps in the night. Seminaries, in my experience, leave many secrets in their shadows. My heartbreak as an undergraduate cannot compare with some of the drama I witnessed both as a student and a professor in seminary. The pious are often among the most passionate of people, but they must learn to be actors before their congregations. Such inherent conflict is fertile ground for intense drama. The video plays this out with the headmistress (Tyler) fantasizing about her young male charges in a highly ritualized, yet anarchic setting. Too close to the truth.

The sacred and the profane lie close together and may be teased apart only with difficulty. The experience of buying an LP when I was a teenager was an investment for not just the sound, but also the album art, the aroma of the vinyl and ink when the plastic wrap first came off, the feel of the heavy paper sleeve housing the disc. It could transport me to another place. Today the iPod reduces the sounds down to background noise, not a soundtrack. The drama we create for our lives is efficient and convenient, but in the end, plastic. Perhaps it is Calvin’s laugh track. No matter. Even if it is on YouTube, with its electronic sound, that video will take me back decades in time, and will be one of the repeated songs on the soundtrack of my life.


Gaddafi is dead. Bin Laden is dead. Saddam Hussein is dead. The people of the Middle East have risen up to reclaim their world from the privileged. In Wall Street people are arrested and sequestered lest the discontent should spread. Do those of Libya, Iraq, Egypt, aspire to Wall Street? Are not the oil barons wealthy enough? How easy it is for us to forget that what we call civilization began here. In what we now call Iraq, people first banded together with complex governments, specialization of labor, and the arts. And, naturally, slavery. As civilization grew, priesthoods became strong. Governments could not stand without the support of the gods. Temples could not stay open without government funding. Gods and kings slept together. The Bible would later parody this as the tower of Babel. How we want to live in that penthouse chapel!

We often take from history that which sustains our interest. And when that interest is reinvested and compounds, we lay the foundations for yet another tower. We live in a world of towers, glad to accept their beauty and glory without realizing that no tower stands out without the deep valleys between the artificial peaks. To build high, some must be consigned to live in the subways and cluttered alleys and sleep out on the streets. The oil money in Dubai, not far from the fabled Eden, erects towers that are the wonders of the modern world. Just looking at pictures of the Burj Khalifa can make one shudder. Oil is decayed life.

Sometimes I imagine the world of the dinosaurs. Mammals must have seemed an endangered species then, small and insignificant as they were. Our distant, distant ancestors must have gazed up on the towering brachiosauruses and bruhathkayosauruses with awe and fear. When they finally evolved opposable thumbs, they decided to emulate their fears. Now the dinosaurs are all petroleum and birds. And still they rule the earth. Civilization began in the oil fields of the world with little use for petroleum. Instead, kings and priests worked together to construct towers that would ultimately fall. Oil makes some very wealthy, but it is only possible because of the extinction of the largest living animals that ever walked the earth.

Dusty Flowers

V. C. Andrews was a name familiar to me from skulking around used bookstores where tons of over-printed, read-only-once books line the shelves. I had seen Flowers in the Attic on many shelves since the 1980s, but supposing it to be a romance title, I showed no interest. As Borders was closing, however, I noticed a copy of the novel on the horror shelf and couldn’t fight the curiosity any longer. I guess it might have been building, subtly, for three decades. My wife was surprised to see it in my stack, but I professed my lack of knowledge and began reading it.

Horror is a strange genre of writing. It is defined in various ways, but I have found that authors deal with their own fears with a variety of strategies. After thirty years I need not worry about spoilers, so I can say that the concept of a parent destroying her own children is about the scariest scenario imaginable. What makes the story of interest here, however, is the treatment of the Bible in the story. After the premature death of their father the Dollanganger children are secreted away in an unused upstairs wing and attic of their wealthy grandparents’ mansion. While the hidden foe is really their mother, Andrews introduces the grandmother as the Bible-quoting, intolerant, prejudiced symbol of oppression. Quick with the rod and completely unforgiving, she goes to bed each night reading her Bible and she insists the children do the same. When she finds an excuse, however, the children are lashed for being wicked.

Interestingly, it is the mother who is never shown quoting the Bible. Towards the end of the story the children recognize that while she is evil, the grandmother would not directly commit murder. The mother who has tasted the intoxicating liquor of wealth, however, knows that even her own children cannot stand in the way of her inheritance. The adults in the story are twisted—some by religion, some by greed. The questions raised by children, like all of us innocent of our own existence, merely ask where the love has gone. Religion without love is Hell, as the pictures selected for the children’s prison by the grandmother clearly show. Worse than Hell, however, is the blinding love of money.

We are all flowers in the attic of an uncaring world. Some find comfort in the power of wealth while others resort to religion. Many try to combine the two. At the end, those who are truly noble are those who survive without either.

Scared Mittless

Once again Time magazine has presented an article where the intelligent are left scratching their heads about religion. Jon Meacham’s Commentary, “An Unholy War,” details how evangelical concerns about Mitt Romney’s Mormonism has an undue weight in regard to his presidential candidacy. For many years the media industry has considered religion passé and without teeth. Sure, the street-corner preacher can still give you a good gumming, but it is rarely fatal. What those who’ve never felt the utter urgency of religion can’t appreciate is, well, its utter urgency. In a day when Buddhist monks and Catholic nuns are wired up to electrodes and told to find that spiritual sweet spot, it is easy to forget that these aren’t just laboratory fictions. For many people in the world, their religious experiences are very important and of sometimes deadly—sometimes eternal—consequence. The sophisticated, the educated, laugh it off as so much hoodoo, and try to get on with human progress. For those raised religious, however, escape is neither easy nor desirable. Those in positions of actually influencing the public need to recognize that religion is not a luxury, a trapping that might be cast off. It is a life choice cast in iron.

Just as serious as the analysis of religion is the incredible influence of religious teaching itself. Take a young child, barely old enough to understand death, and tell him or her that the worst thing they can imagine just can’t compare with the torment God has cooked up for those who step out of line. Repeat. At least once a week. When said child becomes an adult, these early ideas are deeply embedded. Since the 1980s elections in the United States have been restyled as religion popularity contests. With eternal consequences riding on the ballot, political analysts ought to be required to have had taken at least Religion 101. Probably a few upper-level courses would also help. Despite the optimism of scientists and academics, religion is not going away. The reluctance to take it seriously will not diminish its power in people’s lives.

As became very clear reading Philip Jenkins’ Mystics and Messiahs, it has only transpired that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day saints has been recognized as un-culted for less than a hundred years. As a relatively new religion, Mormonism was a “cult” until it had survived long enough to gather a band of respectable followers, such as Mitt Romney. Many Christian groups, particularly evangelical ones, have not released their perception of Mormonism as a cult. Romney, in their eyes, is effectively as pagan as Obama. Their votes, as the eight-year nightmare of the Bush administration demonstrates, can decide elections. Still, we the sophisticated laugh off the country rubes who still believe in God. And although we don’t believe in it, we already have, and may well once again, come to suffer through Hell to show just how educated we are.

Had my Phill

One of the pleasures of the editorial occupation is traveling to campuses to meet potential authors. Having no excuse not to go to Philadelphia, I jumped on a train this morning to spend the day on the campuses of the University of Pennsylvania and Temple University. I’d been to both campuses before, but they are a study in contrasts. Penn is Ivy League, of course, and the students appear confident and self-assured. Temple is a large, public university situated in a neighborhood that doesn’t exactly inspire the same confidence. The students appear happy enough, but of a rather different ethnic blend. I pondered these differences while waiting for a taxi. I hadn’t realized that PHL Taxi stands for “Prefer Hanging Loose”—after three calls and no vehicle, I had to call another company. To try to save Routledge a few pennies, I had opted for the Days Inn in north Philadelphia. A friend told me over lunch that this part of the city is probably not the safest.

In the taxi we drove through neighborhoods that politicians like to pretend do not exist. The sheer degradation of the buildings, sidewalks, and people was sad. The most common type of building, next to houses (many semi-demolished), is churches. Many of the churches bear their names in Spanish; most have heavy metal chain doors emblazoned with crosses. It seems that maybe Van Helsing would go to church in a place like this. The kind of place where a dead body does not astonish, and the people on the street corners look remarkably cheerful, given the circumstances. The Days Inn is in a more open and commercial area, and I don’t think anyone has actually been murdered in this particular room. On Temple’s campus I saw many signs for Occupy Philly.

Those who think everything is just fine with the ultra-wealthy in their heaven while we expect human beings to live like this are worse than naïve. Those who are privileged look on Occupy Philly with a sense of academic curiosity. Those who live next to poverty, hard up against it, see Occupy Philly as a mandate. We can’t keep pretending that everything is okay. If God has a plan for America, why have so many people been left out? People with more churches per block than any affluent neighborhood desires or supports? The movement may be ill-focused and leaderless, but the need is very real. Tomorrow I go back to Temple, back to where the struggle is often life and death and the need is very human. But for this evening, “Now I lay me down to sleep…” I’m sure you know how the rest of it goes.

Yeti Again

Time magazine announced last week, in a story spelled out on, that “There may be solid evidence that the apelike yeti roams the Siberian tundra.” This is surprising news given that even in the face of good evidence, science is reluctant to admit new large animals to our biological family. The reasoning goes that since humans (mostly white, male humans of the western hemisphere) have explored most of the landmass on this planet, we could not have missed any large land creatures. There are rare exceptions, such as the mountain gorilla, added to our database only about a century ago, but it seems to have been the last of the large animals to avoid detection. Now the yeti, the bogeyman of many childhood dreams, may be coming to life.

Science is our way of describing and theorizing about what we have discovered. Many therefore assume that science is all about new discoveries. Some of us feel a tinge of sadness at having been born after the great era of discovery. Reading about how adventurers (responsible for far more fundamentally earth-shaking discoveries than scientists of their times) ventured into new worlds and declared the wonders of God revealed in the formerly unknown, is always a humbling experience. We know so little. The mark of the truly educated is not the claims of great knowledge, but the admission of how little we really understand. Does the yeti roam the inhospitable and very sparsely populated regions of Siberia and the Himalayas where it has been a staple of folklore for centuries? We may never find definitive proof, but Time holding out a candle of hope seems a step in the right direction.

Relegated to the world of the “paranormal,” elusive animals demonstrate that the ways we know about the world are multitude. Science does not, and does not claim to, know everything. Indeed, science has a limited frame of reference within which it works. Going out seeking cryptids is not, properly speaking, science. The belief that those seeking evidence display is closer to religious conviction. That does not mean it is wrong or that it is founded upon faulty suppositions. It is simply a different kind of knowledge. It is common to say science is in conflict with religion. It need not be. If we accept science at its word, as doing what it claims to do, there is no need ever to question assured results. Belief, on the other hand, seldom crosses over into the realm of objective truth, empirically demonstrated. If it did, it would not require believing. If yeti is discovered, there will be much celebration among believers, but the creature will necessarily pass into the hands of science. For this reason alone, many are glad to leave it in the realm of folklore and myth. Either way, to some people, yeti will always be real, whether scientifically verified or not.

Tepe Temple

When a colleague sent me an NPR story on Göbekli Tepe, I was thrown back into the conundrum far older than archaeology itself—how can a site be identified as religious? Most of us hardly realize that when we enter a church or cathedral that the overall plan is based on that of the earliest temples we know. Conventional wisdom associates temples first with the Sumerians, the harbingers of civilization itself. The basic premise was that a niche existed for a cult image (statue of a deity, generally) with an altar before it. Although the concept was widely disseminated, many reformed and rereformed Christian groups tried to distance themselves from it, calling altars “tables” and making them mobile. Probably the most successful are the Pentecostals; last time I attended a service the “sanctuary” felt like a warehouse. Actually, it was a warehouse. In general, however, there has been little need to reinvent the religious wheel, so the standard plan still often applies. Enter Göbekli Tepe.

Göbekli Tepe is located in southeast Turkey, near what was actually Mesopotamia in ancient times. The hill-top site is a Neolithic structure, and that means it was built before agriculture became widespread, during our hunter-gatherer stage. It is the earliest known human religious structure. The article on NPR questions precisely this: is it religious? How do we identify structures in pre-writing cultures as religious? Some archaeologists are guilty of labeling any structure or artifact with no practical function as “religious,” but this is a little cynical. Part of the problem is that religion itself remains ill-defined, being a post-Christian category to describe behavior singled out for God’s benefit. As a child I wondered, if God exists how could anyone not devote all their time to God?—the very speculation that led to my profession. Ancient people, like all animals, felt the urge to eat, rest, seek shelter, reproduce—animal things. It was a full-time job. When agriculture simplified things a bit by giving some measure of control over food supply, other professions began to emerge. Priesthood, as a means of ensuring continuity among the entire system, was one of the coveted jobs. Göbekli Tepe predates the Sumerians by thousands of years. The large structure with reliefs carved into the rock seems temple-like to some, less so to others.

The NPR article points out, correctly, that the distinction between sacred and profane may be premature as applied to Göbekli Tepe. We can test the cases even today: certain human functions are considered profane, chief among them sexual acts. It is clear from the sexuality of ancient religious artifacts that the profanity of sex is not an ancient idea. Ritualized eating is very common and still takes place in highly stylized form among many Christian, Jewish, and Muslim groups. Work itself was considered to be a divine assignment in ancient times. Our ultimate bosses were the gods. Little room remained for “secular” pursuits. By compartmentalizing life into “religious” and “not religious” we have found a way to pursue our own selfish ends and still wind up in the pews on the weekend, congratulating ourselves for obeying the dictates of divine law. Where is true religion to be found here? Is it not more likely to reside among ancient people, like those of Göbekli Tepe who lived their entire lives in the service of the gods?