Best Prayer in the Air

With my current job I travel quite a bit. With all the attendant time hanging around airports, I have time to think back to pre-deregulation days when flying meant some kind of care in the air. It has been in the news the last few days that Alaska Airlines is removing the prayer cards from its trays during meals. When I saw that, the real surprise to me was—airlines serving meals? When did they start doing that? A couple years back I flew coast to coast on Alaska Airlines with nothing more than a sack of peanuts. I would have been happy to have had a prayer card to eat. I agree with those who pointed out to the airline, when it served these alleged meals, that paying customers shouldn’t be proselytized. You can get enough of that by watching GOP debates. And I certainly hope the message wasn’t that the plane only flew on a miracle.

I’m sure that some people will say there’s no harm in a little non-invasive sermonizing. Therefore I must make my own confession; I was a teenage evangelical. Although I never actually did tracts myself, I hung out with kids who did. Once, on the way home from a youth meeting, a carload of us stopped to get a bite to eat in a diner. Now, we were high school kids, not flush with money, but even I knew it was right to tip—waitresses have to put up with a lot for little pay. One of my friends told us that if we really wanted to help the young lady out, we should leave a tract as a tip. What reward could be better than salvation? Surely that would help to feed her family or buy her kids a new pair of shoes. Indoctrinated as I was (and I hadn’t even been to college yet, Mr. Santorum), it seemed like a good idea. Still, I felt bad when we left.

These two situations are not dissimilar. In both cases someone would rather print cheap words on cheap paper with free sentiments rather than giving a person sustenance. It’s been a few years since I’ve darkened a pulpit, but I do seem to recall Jesus insisting that the hungry be fed. I don’t recall what he said about tracts and prayer cards.

Religions have a way of focusing on the forgettable minutiae while overlooking the real need right in front of them. In November I flew from New York to San Francisco, subsisting on a tiny bag of peanuts and some airline orange juice. If old Deutero-Isaiah were sitting next to me he might have said, “why spend money on what is not bread?” But I was thinking that maybe the karma of that tipless waitress was simply coming back full circle.

Wassailing

It was a nippy 42 degrees with a chill January breeze cutting through the brightly garbed crowd of maybe two-dozen stalwart souls. There were Molly dancers holding hands and skipping in a circle. Smoke from a bonfire caught the breeze as a woman with a painted face sang about the circle of the sun. The whole event had a Wicker Man sort of feeling to it, but participating in an ancient tradition is strangely fulfilling. A basket on the table held pencils and paper on with instructions to write your wish and burn the paper in the bonfire so that “Your message will travel into the cosmos.” The bare apple trees were seasonally pruned and discarded branches littered the ground. It all sounds suitably pagan for a Sunday afternoon in New Jersey.

Having grown up in a rather sheltered small-town environment I never even heard of wassail until planning for my December wedding nearly twenty-five years ago. A low budget affair with the reception in a church basement, my wife decided not to offend Methodist sensibilities by serving wassail, a spiced cider drink generally associated with Christmas. As I learned this midwinter, wassailing has a deep and mysterious ancestry that is a mix of pagan and Christian traditions. One aspect of wassailing is associated with Christmas carols and is based on the tradition of the wealthy sharing with the poor during the holiday season (a practice clearly extinct these days). The second type of wassailing goes back to nature religion and the blessing of the apple trees. It was observed on midwinter, which, before the Gregorian calendar, fell on January 17. At Terhune Orchards the festival fell on the 29th this year.

After watching the Molly dancers and sending our wishes up to the cosmos in the bonfire, one of the orchard proprietors gathered the crowd, now having about doubled to fifty, to sing the Somerset Wassail and then to make noise to drive out the evil spirits. This the crowd did with enthusiasm. We were then asked to recite the wassail prayer, printed on a signpost for all to see. Bread was passed out which we dunked in cider and hung on the naked apple trees. After a final blessing we headed to our car to preserve our own wassail. In England’s apple-growing regions, wassailing the trees is still practiced with a sincerity that marks the deeply mysterious. Some Christian sensibilities, I’m sure would be offended, but this ancient custom, like leaving a tree to stand in the midst of a plowed field to propitiate the spirit of nature, goes profoundly into human consciousness. I, for one, will lift a cup of cider and join the ancient rite to brighten a winter day.

Instruction, through Film

In an increasingly technological world, the acquisition of knowledge often seems like a moving target. For thousands of years the process of research meant lifting yourself out of the chair, or couch, or log, and going to where the written collection of human knowledge resided—the library. Assurbanipal, emperor of Assyria, assembled a great library in antiquity, as did the sages of Alexandria, Egypt. From those days until my own lifetime, if you wanted to learn something you went to where the books resided. The birth of the Internet has changed knowledge storage considerably, but not completely. You might find bits of Assurbanipal’s Akkadian wisdom online (Alexandria’s, unfortunately, didn’t survive antiquity), next to thousands of e-books, blogs, and tweets. And of course, videos. Although many of my blog posts refer to horror movies, one of my favorite sources of information has always been the documentary. Despite the fact that it’s spoon-fed knowledge, there’s nothing quite like watching the experts tell you what you need to know on this or that topic.

Assurbanipal, lion hunter, emperor, librarian.

I was, naturally, pleased to learn of documentary-log.com. The folks from the site were kind enough to contact me since they offer many religion documentaries for free. I suspect that most readers of this blog have some interest in religion since I seldom write about anything else. Documentary-log.com currently has over thirty professionally made documentaries from various producers (including the History channel) available for viewing. Just sit back, click, and learn. I added to my own knowledge-base yesterday. This is particularly nice for those of us who can’t really afford the constantly increasing expense of buying access to television service. If your interests are greater than religion, they have many other categories of documentaries available as well. There are much worse ways to spend an afternoon.

One of the questions that arises in my conversations these days is whether all of the material online is changing knowledge itself. There’s no question that it’s a time saver. Prof. J. C. L. Gibson once remarked, while looking for a passage in class at Edinburgh, “So much of scholarship is turning pages.” He was a man who still did not use a typewriter, up to the day of his death. There is something to the old form of knowledge that stays with me as I watch the world inexorably change around me. There was a thrill to finding a book from 1516 on the open shelves at the New College library of Edinburgh University, to touching its centuries-old pages and marveling. Sitting in John Gibson’s office as he puffed on his pipe and trying to defend my new ideas against his old ones, I felt that knowledge was being hammered into me. There is an arcane knowledge to starting every day with a wee dram and a prayer that the World Wide Web just hasn’t managed to capture yet.

Tweeting the Bible

I have an underused Twitter account. My life isn’t so interesting that I need to give my few followers (fewer even than those who read this blog) updates throughout the day. In fact, I mainly use it to let my Tweethearts know what I’m blogging about on any given day. While reading a book on the influence of technology on religion (more anon) it struck me that one of the more interesting aspects of biblical studies is the fact that the well never goes dry. For those who read sacred texts, there is no end of interpretation. I’ve addressed this before on this blog—religion is as individual as each believer. The more I read biblical interpretations, however, the more I see the subtle textures and layers that readers find in the text, despite what most religious leaders desire. And I don’t restrict this to the Bible—any sacred text can be read in multiple ways. The Bible, however, has been foundational for this person that I’ve become, and so I’ve decided to do some close reading.

I’m going to tweet the Bible. (If you are one of my rare followers, don’t worry—read on.) I’m going to tweet the maximum 140 characters per message once a day. For this task I will be using the King James Version, arguably the most influential book ever written in the western world. Doubt me? Watch a presidential candidate debate. Or google Girl Scout cookies. Why am I doing this? Well, I wonder what the Bible says when it is broken down into byte-sized nuggets. At character 140 I will stop, and the next day I will begin where I left off the day before. This exercise will be a way of looking at the Bible from a fresh angle. Besides, it’s been a few years since I’ve read the entire KJV. I don’t pretend that nobody else has thought of this—I’m sure there are many Bible tweets out there. I’m curious, however, at 140 characters a day how long it will take, and what will emerge. Yes, I know that there are mathematical whizzes out there who could calculate the answer in a matter of seconds, but I just have to see for myself. The doubting tweeter.

A new look at an old book.

There may be occasions when I fail—isn’t the Bible about forgiveness anyway? In my job I travel quite a bit, and sometimes Internet access is dicey. Most hotels, however, still sport a Gideon Bible, so resources should be no problem. It will be an adventure, and the Bible could stand some adventure these days. Besides, interesting pericopes will give me something to blog about occasionally. For those who haven’t been subjected to years of higher education on the Bible (or other texts), a pericope is a passage cut out from its surroundings. It is the favorite of televangelists and other proof-texters who prefer to not to face the larger implications of reading the whole Bible in its context. I like to think of this exercise as Internet hermeneutics. So let the adventure begin. If you are really bored and want to follow a glacially paced Bible reading, my Twitter name is stawiggins. When interesting observations emerge, however, I will let my blog readers know as well. In the technical age, life is tweet.

Three Degrees Below Zero

Rick Santorum has turned his attack on intelligence against American universities, according to a story in the Huffington Post. He claims the left uses colleges for indoctrination to keep themselves in power. Sounds like somebody’s been sipping a little too much communion wine. I know many people who might have a right to make such claims, but Santorum isn’t one of them. Santorum earned a Bachelor of Arts, with honors, from the wicked, indoctrinating Pennsylvania State University. He then succumbed again to the indoctrination when he, apparently accidentally, earned a Master of Business Administration from the University of Pittsburgh. Somehow he stumbled onto a J.D. with honors from Dickinson School of Law. A man this indoctrinated, I say, has no business being president.

During these senior moments (not to offend any seniors who might actually make that claim) Santorum seems to have missed that universities are among the most under-funded, crisis-ridden institutions on American soil. With rare exceptions, universities are cutting programs, canceling positions, and slashing budgets. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve vented a fair amount of criticism on our universities and I know, firsthand, that they aren’t perfect. I rage because I love. It seems that some children of privilege like to rage because it’s in fashion. If you’re going to take on those smarter than you, at least try to get the facts straight. Higher education is such a small segment of the American employment force that the only reason you’d go after them is that, well, you’re in a church. Baptist Catholic Santorum made his remarks while at a church in Florida, a state which, despite insidious power-mongering, boasts some of the finest universities in the country.

Taking stabs at Obama, Santorum claims the president wants all kids to go to college, and that’s a bad thing. You don’t want an educated electorate. It is harder to get educated people to march in goose-step with everybody else. Talk about indoctrination! Vote for me, because I will keep you safe from the horrors of an education of which I couldn’t stop my self from taking advantage. Don’t send your kids to law school. There can be real danger even in sending them to grammar school, for there they learn to spell. I wonder, if in the course of earning his three degrees, Mr. Santorum ever learned to spell the word “hypocrite.”

Just an average guy, hanging with his buds.

Grapes of Mirth

Growing up in a teetotaling family, when I first encountered Greek mythology I paid scant attention to Dionysus. Assuming him to be “just the god of wine,” I had no interest in the wares he was peddling. Of mythology itself there was no end of fascination, and many of the great classics have been toned down to Disney, or even more insipid, for the entertainment of children. What we often fail to appreciate is that this is religion. Mythology that does not address the very real human concerns of sex, intoxication, and false dealing is really of no help at all. If in doubt, read your Bible. (Not the children’s version.) When I came back to Greek mythology as an adult, it became clear that Dionysus differed from other gods in considerable ways. While teaching my mythology classes, I decided to read more about this intriguing god. Well, it was just like the Fates that I would get a new job before reading Walter Otto’s book, Dionysus, but the urge was still strong and I was glad I’d read it.

Otto wrote in the days of Frazer’s technique of comparing sometimes questionable sources, and yet he produced a masterful, and poetic study of Dionysus. What quickly becomes clear is that the popular association of Bacchus with wine is a gross oversimplification. Dionysus is the god of madness, of blurring distinctions, and of losing control. He is the most frequently represented god in Greek art because, like us, he sometimes loses it. Greek society is famed for its rationality and order. It is sometimes overlooked by the reasoning mind that creativity, emotion, wildness are part of the complexity of humanity. Dionysus is the god who understands the need to let go once in a while. This is not hedonism, nor is it debased. Bacchus represents the human in full form. He is the god who comes to humanity, the god of appearing. Dionysus, the friendly god.

In the early days of Christianity in the Greek world, many Greeks supposed that the Jesus preached to them was Dionysus (to the chagrin of many missionaries). The connections, however, are remarkable. Like Jesus Dionysus has a god for a father and a human for a mother. He lives a carefree life and is the god who actually comes down to live with people. He is a god who dies and who is resurrected. Like Jesus, he enjoyed a glass of Bordeaux every now and again. And his followers were fanatical. As Otto makes clear in his dated, but insightful, book, Dionysus left a deep imprint on culture itself that continues to affect us even today. Even if we’re teetotalers, we can appreciate the depth of character and the complex nature of a god like Bacchus. And if we’re honest we’ll admit that there are times when we just have to let it go.

Cookie Time

All right, who wants to be the big meanie now? The fact that politics manage to besmirch just about any human enterprise, no matter how noble, is a lesson many of us learn on our slow trek to adulthood. I sadly came to realize that the church is incredibly political, and that universities could rival congress for the backstabbing and posturing that goes on. In the midst of all this politicking, one of the truly good NGOs left in the world is Girl Scouts. Sure, there will always be some councils with personality issues, and some troops will have a difficult scout or parent with which to cope, but the organization is based on the principle of giving girls the confidence and assurance they need to be successful in life. What could be wrong with that?

My wife pointed out a story on Salon.com that reveals some anti-abortion groups are now claiming that Girl Scouts supports Planned Parenthood. This is patently not true. Even if it was, it would hardly be a crime to teach girls reproductive options (after all, when is the last time a Pope or President carried a pregnancy to term?), but since people don’t think with precision, it seems best to keep girls in the dark. Some right-wing groups are boycotting Girl Scout cookies as if the devil himself were the baker. Not to be outdone in perceived self-righteousness, some Catholic Churches are kicking out Girl Scout troops for supporting abortion! All of this based on a lie. The road to the unconscionable position of the Catholic Church toward reproduction has been long and mentally torturous. Anyone who has taken the trouble to trace the church’s strange love affair with the fetus may be surprised to learn how recent the concern became an issue and how very androcentric it is. The church’s claims here rely on nothing more than good old testosterone-generating glands and the love thereof. To punish the Girl Scouts for a fictitious association with an unapproved organization shows just how mature the largest church in the world truly is.

The male bias in the majority of the world’s societies is bad enough. The United States likes to hold itself up as an icon of fairness and equality. It is the spirit upon which this nation was founded. Except when it comes to females. We don’t want our girls to have reproductive autonomy because that might make men look somehow less masculine. As for those wimpy guys who like to read, the Bible backs them up completely on this issue. God is a guy, and made guys to be in charge. No matter how much education you offer, you won’t be able to change that one-book-fits-all outlook. What will we have lost if we seriously and honestly treat both genders equally (and even those intersexed individuals)? Only the apparently fragile male sense of superiority. I say, in the spirit of America vote for equality! Buy Girl Scout cookies!

Deliver us from evil.

Who Knows?

While I have nothing less than respect (and just slightly less than utter awe) for my alma mater of Edinburgh, I cannot help being bemused at times by the alumni magazine. Between my wife and I, when we fail to cover our tracks adequately, we receive almost as many alumni magazines as exclusive credit card offers. Anybody intelligent enough to graduate realizes that these magazines are attempts to raise money, but they maintain the illusion of giving actual news. Thus it was I found myself facing a pithy piece stating in no uncertain terms that “Near-death events are ‘tricks of mind.’” The rationale given is that psychologists at both Edinburgh and Cambridge have decided it is so.

Now, I’ve never had a near-death experience, nor do I really ever want to. I don’t know what to make of the stories of those who claim to have “crossed over.” The problem is, there can be no winner to the argument of authentic experience versus mind trick. Those who know, by definition, can’t tell. Each side has good points to make. Some religions, particularly those of western orientation, tend to offer an afterlife anyway, so when someone appears to have slipped over the edge and claims they saw a great light, well, why not? Scientists often make the equally valid point that the rapid images that occur in the brain may seem to stretch on into minutes or hours and may incorporate images that our culture lends us of what to expect when the darkness falls. The near-death experience is, they say, final jolts of electrical “noise” just before brain activity ceases.

Some things we just can’t know, even if we attended Edinburgh. “Near-death experiences are not paranormal but are triggered by a change in normal brain function, according to researchers.” So the article says. There seems nothing paranormal about death—it is as natural an event as exists. It is common to us all, including pets and pests. The “paranormal” is the idea that something continues after death. If that something includes a deity or two, it becomes “religious” rather than “paranormal.” Whether religious, psychological, or paranormal, intelligent people continue to debate what is actually happening to those who have been briefly dead and have the medical records to prove it. For my part, if there’s something on the other side, I hope it’s a lot like Edinburgh. Maybe with a few less alumni magazines, however.

Life, and then this.

Religious Capital

Eric Weiner’s book, Man Seeks God, surely received a boost with an article in Sunday papers (originally written for the Los Angeles Times). In this piece, Weiner comments on the American fluidity of religion, how people pick and choose the spirituality that works for them. His observations are based on the results of a Pew Trust study that indicates about a third of Americans change their religion during their lifetimes. This is a departure from the age-old tradition of being born into a religion, something that still seems to apply to two-thirds of the American population. In his article Weiner suggests this is not entirely a bad thing, since people are consciously deciding on that to which they will commit themselves. I haven’t yet read Weiner’s book, but the situation described here has a potent underlying implication.

Religions tend to make claims based on certitudes and assertions of absolute truth. When religion becomes merely a matter of choice, has it not lost its very foundation? This may not be a bad thing, but it does change completely the essence of religion. No longer can religion be considered an inviolable truth handed down from on high if the truth is a matter of choice. Or, more troubling, perhaps we no longer seek truth. In a population based on personal satisfaction, religion becomes an extension of personal comfort. In a society where non-faith is suspect (most atheists still complain of being considered “evil” for their non-belief), people need to believe something—anything. We can’t test the truth in any empirical way, so we all have to admit to some guessing. When born into a religion, questioning is a sign of doubt. When shopping for a religion, questioning is a smart economics. Does this religion work for me? Is there one that suits me better? Is it worth the extra costs?

The center of focus has shifted from seeking the one, unwavering truth that is beyond us to seeking a belief that we can stomach. Religion is a commodity. Perhaps this development is inevitable in any society so dedicated to the free market that even common decency is labeled socialism. Is it possible for people who constantly think in terms of supply and demand to understand an absolute in one tiny sector of their lives? Choice becomes an all-or-nothing proposition. Its pragmatism indicates its origins. When people can choose a religion without consequences, it should be obvious that this is a human construct. Instead, we want to believe that our religion is the right one because that’s the way we like it. Perhaps the question we should be asking is whether our lifestyle is authentic or simply a fabrication made to suit our wishes. Our treatment of religion as a product to purchase and use reveals more about what we believe than does any creed.

The Evil Living

Returning home from my campus visits, I needed some brainless relaxation. Since we don’t have any television service at home, this means watching movies. I’d heard quite a bit about The Evil Dead over the years—a movie that was scary back in the 80’s when it appeared. Improvements in special effects and the intensity of engineered sound are capable of drawing a person into an alternate reality for a couple of hours these days, and the endless reiteration of earlier movie effects somehow robs the early thrillers of their impact. The Evil Dead, however, capitalizes on confusion about the menace and teeters on the brink of morality for the entire 85 minutes. Naturally, when looking for a source of fear, it seeks a religious agent. The source of the evil in the woods is narrated in a voice-over of the presumably dead scientist who has discovered Sumerian texts that release demons in the forest (mostly in the form of falling trees).

Sumerian is always a safe bet if you want a language that your viewers will not be able to identify. The earliest known recorded language, Sumerian is still difficult even for experts, and it conveys all the strangeness of long ago. We do know that the Sumerians recorded myths that involve what we might call “demons” today, but the possession of humans was a much later development—probably a pre-scientific way of explaining epilepsy. As our five students seek a weekend getaway in the woods, they become possessed and face the moral question of just when a person ceases to be human. At what stage does someone have the right to kill someone else? Perhaps unintentionally, the movie gives us the answer, “Never.” This kind of morality has a place in America, one of the very few “first world” nations in which the death penalty is still legal. Often promoted by those dead-set against abortion. Where do we draw the line saying a person has crossed over into the unforgivable other?

The Evil Dead has become a cult classic over the years. Its relatively low budget of less than half-a-million dollars brought an astonishing box office return on the investment. The gore, tame by more modern standards, does not mask that what is really at issue here: the question of right versus wrong. What is truly evil? Sumerians aside, what possesses people and drives them to destroy one another? The Evil Dead, like many horror films, reaches for a religious answer. As the supernatural fog begins to clear, however, we might not like what we see in the clear light of day. Religion may be an excuse, but the assaults upon one another are what Nietzsche famously called “human, all too human.” The sooner we clear our vision and pay attention to what is actually happening, the sooner we can combat the horror.

Jesus for President

From my economical hotel to Duke University was maybe a twenty-minute drive. As a stranger in town I prefered to stay off the heavily traveled corridors during busy morning commute times, never being sure when exactly my exit was coming up. So I took the backroads. Along the way I started to see churches with denominational names I’ve never even heard before. I quickly lost count of just how many houses of worship I passed. With all this rich fare, perhaps it is time to tighten the old Bible belt a bit. The short drive reminded me of my one and only fact-gathering trip sponsored by Nashotah House. I was sent to Asbury Seminary in Wilmore, Kentucky for a technology conference. Accompanied by an Episcopal priest and a Lutheran pastor, I was not the only one of us to feel a bit besieged by the in-your-face evangelicalism of Kentucky. My Lutheran colleague wistfully commented, “but the ELCA is ‘Evangelical.’” A different species of evangelical entirely.

The chapel at Duke University easily dominates the west campus. The divinity school is one of the flagship seminaries of the United Methodist Church. Founded by the tobacco money of James Buchanan Duke (who also owned the estate in New Jersey where our ill-fated garden was planted this summer) and the fledgling Trinity College, Duke is an interesting mix of the sacred and profane; Eliade in quadrangles and limestone. The campus sports identity is the Blue Devils, and this diabolical emblem can be seen leering from tote bags and campus buses connecting east and west. Money and religion, devils and saints. Life offers many choices, and Duke, as an exclusive institution, serves the blended family of academics in Bible land.

One of my daughter’s favorite movies as a child was Disney’s Lilo and Stitch. In case you missed it, Stitch is an alien (you’ve got to love it already!), and Lilo is a little girl who loves Elvis, a true southern prodigy. The movie features Elvis singing Giant, Baum and Kaye’s “Devil in Disguise.” Although a song about love in crisis, “Devil in Disguise” seems a decidedly useful trope. Human institutions often disguise themselves as divine. After all, no suite trumps the God card. Religion is so prevalent in the Bible Belt that Christianity is less a religion and more a culture. That culture is at barbed odds with itself, for its deepest, darkest desires are out of line with the utter selflessness that Jesus seems to imply is at the heart of Christianity. Travel is one of the greatest teaching tools we have. Sometimes your own country can feel like foreign soil.

Naked Before the Almighty

Okay, so I’m a bearded white man traveling alone. Perhaps I look like I have nothing to lose. So at the Raleigh-Durham Airport I’m singled out for a full-body scan. I told the very serious-looking woman that it was against my religion. She said, “You can have a pat-down then.” Oh boy! I was very stoic as the stranger with a southern accent told me just how he was going to touch me, using the back of his hands until he met “resistance.” Echoes of Pulp Fiction. By the time it was all over, I think he kinda liked me.

We, as Americans, have allowed our government to subject us to horror. My younger colleagues tell me that the terror of high school after-gym shower time has finally been eliminated. I grew up taught that no one, not least myself, had a right to look “down there.” Naked in a windowless room with a bunch of boys whose hormones are tearing them apart was never comfortable for me. One gym teacher sadistically told us if we could hold our hand under the hot water tap wide open for a full minute we’d get an A in phys ed without having to do a thing more. Pain makes the man.

Now I go to the airport where some voyeur I don’t know and will never meet makes an assessment of my endowment, analyzes my assets. Thank you, no. Who gives him the right? Of course, the Bush Administration did. We, as citizens, stand bare before our rich and powerful leaders. I don’t think that’s what the right to bare arms is all about. From a shop below wafts Bob Dylan’s “Subterranean Homesick Blues.” The irony seems lost on all but me. But then, a stranger’s hands are down my pants. Bush’s legacy in the Patriot Act is that all are guilty until proven innocent. After being felt up, I feel like I need a shower. I need to check my “resistance.”

Then again, maybe my government will do it for me.

Poisonous Beliefs

When it comes to staying alone in hotels, I use the time to catch up on my reading. I suppose I did my time with television as a child, and there are so many books awaiting my attention that I just can’t see letting the time get away. Last night, however, I’d heard that Rick Perry was accusing God of changing His mind, and so I switched on the news. After that grew tiresome, I landed on Animal Planet where a woman was being chased out of her house by a snake. Being in North Carolina, the first thing that came to mind was snake-handlers, and within minutes my suspicions were confirmed. I’d stumbled on “Snake Man of Appalachia.” I was transfixed. Although I caught the show already in progress, it quickly became clear that the wife was terrified of snakes and her underemployed husband spent his ample spare time collecting rattlers and copperheads for church. The setting was rural Kentucky. Very rural.

This was a marriage between an unbeliever (she, Reva) and a true believer (he, Verlin). Reva’s love for Verlin was quite obvious, even as she told the camera she didn’t believe in snake-handling. “I worry every time he goes to church,” she lamented in the diametrically opposite words of the stereotypical housewife complaint. Meanwhile, some various relatives, apparently closely related, were out on their ATVs huntin’ snakes. They would praise Jesus when they found one, after stuffing it into the safety bag. If Mark 16.18 were truly to be taken literally, why would you need to use those snake-handling hooks and bags to carry the poor things in? It was a good day for snagging serpents, and when Sunday rolled around Reva was very worried as Verlin headed off to church with a Bible in the hand and a several snake carriers in the back of the 4-by-4. There were not many people in church—less than 10. I wondered what their death records read like.

Animal Planet has sunken to the lowest common denominator, adding shows about rusticated foils for sophisticated urbanites to laugh at. How else can you explain “Hillbilly Handfishin’”? What was sad to me was that Verlin and his family live in very humble circumstances. Very humble. He has trouble finding work and even his wife prays that the Lord might use his snake-gathering talent to earn a little money. They couldn’t even afford birthday presents for their kids, and we call it entertainment. Among the multitude of religious conflicts slithering through my brain as I watched, there was an even more troubling image: bread and circuses. When the Roman Empire had lost the unthinking adoration of the citizens, the ploy of making a spectacle of the suffering of others became common. Our society has clearly made the declaration that the wealthy are where they deserve to be and the rest of us should bask in their beneficence. You think you got it bad, watch those poor believers handling snakes while they live in shacks. After all, doesn’t that same Bible say, “blessed are the poor”?

Where is your faith?

Old Smoky

I don’t mean to hit below the Bible Belt, but I find myself in North Carolina for a round of campus visiting this week. Since I’ve only ever passed through North Carolina on my way elsewhere before, I wasn’t quite sure if I’d experience culture shock. Since I’m visiting multiple schools, I needed to rent a car. As I climbed in, it was clear that I was in tobacco country. The problem with the rich, satisfying taste of tobacco is that it doesn’t translate well. I grew up forced to inhale many cubic meters of second-hand smoke, and I can’t stand the wretched odor. It stands to reason from my previous sentence that I grew up knowing many smokers, and it was entirely obvious to me that they did not realize just what a legacy their habits left behind. I went to school smelling like burnt industrial waste, and when I climbed into my Hertz Nissan Versa in North Carolina all of that came back to me in an instant.

When tobacco was king, or at least Duke.

In my evangelical childhood I was taught that smoking was wrong, although, perhaps understandably, Jesus had little to say on the subject. This highlights one of the thornier aspects of drawing ethics from the Bible. Apart from the obvious damages to health, the Bible gives no guidance either way on the smoking issue. The same may be said for contraception, abortion, drug use and stem cells. For all its laws, the Bible is remarkably non-issue driven. What you choose to do with your body is less important than the impact your actions will have on somebody else’s body. God is the parent who is driving the car shouting at the kids in the backseat, “Keep your hands to yourself!” So, here in the land of tobacco, the teeth of my biblical argument are extracted. I can hear some readers objecting that Paul says your body is a temple of the Lord. Problem is, they used lots of incense in the temple—and that smoke can be even more choking than cigarettes (I write from experience here).

Morals, as ethicists are increasingly realizing, come from custom rather than scripture. Rules are based on what society holds to be of benefit to the greatest number. The Bible has a voice in this debate, but no vote. Rules handed down from on high lack the human touch. We share the planet with our fellow humans, so they must be our focus when it comes to ethics. Some habits, unfortunately, share a little too much. I’m not the kind of person to tell other people what to do, but when I climb out of my rental car smelling like burnt industrial waste I somehow feel slightly wronged here. Maybe one of those rules should be, if you don’t own it, don’t smoke in it. Is that smoke I see rising from atop Mount Sinai?

Sinking Feeling

Many readers are aware of the heavily metaphoric nature of many posts on this blog. Sometimes staring directly at something can be too troubling to handle, so metaphors come to the rescue. I was about to board a plane in LaGuardia yesterday when the news about the sinking of the Costa Concordia came onto the news. The wrecks of mass transit carriers—whether trains, planes, buses, or cruise ships—are tragic in terms of the potential for harm to many. Perhaps worse, they are reminders of our own anonymity. It is the rare John Jacob Astor who gets remembered as the victim of a specific mass tragedy. And he was already famous to begin with. We hear more about the Buddy Holly crash than we do the individual names of the many thousands wiped out in the Christmas Tsunami of 2004. What were their names?

As of this morning eleven people are reported dead from the Costa Concordia, one of them notably not being Captain Francesco Schettino, the man who would not go down with the ship. Seafaring lore—surely some of the richest and most inventive in the world—has rules about this kind of thing. The captain goes down with the ship. Ships were (are) generally given feminine names since they are the womb-like protectors of those aboard. Nature knows no better protector than a mother. The captain is the dedicated son who, when his mother sinks, accompanies her to Davy Jones. The Italian coast guard had to order Schettino back aboard his sinking ship after he’d abandoned rescue efforts.

We expect much from our leaders. Things are so complicated in this world we’ve constructed that many of us know we simply couldn’t get along without those smarter than we are. When the car won’t start. When I can’t connect to the Internet. When Wikipedia is shut down for a day. When I watch movies about the last person left alive in some post-apocalyptic scenario. At these times I realize just how little I know. I’ve occasionally been privileged to drive a boat—something I have no business doing—by those who trust my judgment more than I do. Even out on a wide lake the world seems out of control. We need a captain who will stay with the ship. And when all of this is over, whose name will be remembered? Is it the eleven (maybe more) who died? No, it will be Captain Francesco Schettino, the man who refused to go down with his ship.