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.