Monthly Archives: February 2012

Leap Day

Why isn’t Leap Day a holiday? From ancient times early civilizations that used a solar calendar realized that the 365 day year doesn’t really work out. (Must have been a calculation error in the divine calculus on day one, I suppose.) Even though the solstices and equinoxes come and go with astronomical regularity, the earth’s orbit around the sun is a little out of sync with its wobble on its axis. The difference doesn’t make itself very apparent in a year, or even a decade. If you let it keep going, however, the calendrical months, like the seasons themselves, begin to migrate. Given enough time January would become summer in the northern hemisphere. Intercalary solutions ranged from adding extra days to saving them up, in some cultures, and adding an extra month to the year. The error of the gods then slipped back into mathematical precision. The one thing that the ancients recognized in common was that this extra time was a gift, a day to be celebrated. In the modern, post-industrial world, it is just another day to go to work while politicians get an extra day to campaign.

Time is perhaps the greatest theological challenge. People have limited time. Since we seek pleasure and comfort—even when we don’t attain it—most of us prefer to remain alive to try again. We sometimes forget how great a gift this is. One of my favorite songs growing up was Jim Croce’s “Time in a Bottle.” But alas, time is a bandit—as Jim Croce’s tragically short life illustrates a little too well. As the ultimately unrenewable resource, time reminds us of the folly of politicians and the fickleness of fame. Wasting time is the greatest sin imaginable.

Above all, time is a religious problem. Faced with human mortality, all religions address, in some way or other, what happens after the end. When time runs out. We can’t conceive this world without us, but as the calendar implacably shows, it’ll get along just fine. That’s why today should be a holiday. It is a freebie—one of those rare, saving up for a rainy day moments when after four years of scrimping we’re given a new day. It has celebrate written all over it. Time is a bandit, robbing us of the sensibilities of our ancient, cultural forebears who used this time to party while we use it to labor. “Time in a Bottle,” it is said, was written for Croce’s son A. J. The son is a musician like his late father. As I sit here hearing the seconds tick away on the clock, I realize that every great once in a while the bandit gives as well as takes. In that light, every day is a holiday.

Walking Monsters

It was a moment of weakness, or at least tawdry cheapness, that made me watch The Monster Walks. Just the day before the Cable Vision guy had stopped by, detailing how much money we could save by switching. We haven’t had television service since 2004, and even then it was only with a cheap aerial. Back in the days of Borders, I sometimes caved in and purchased the “Classic Features” movie boxes with 50 B, C, or D movies for what seemed a steal at less then 25 dollars. Maybe five or six of the movies from each set were actually worth the time spent watching them, but many of them proved an education. So it was with The Monster Walks.

Now, I readily confess to having a weakness for B movies. Made by people who were really trying, but who seemed to lack talent, I often identify with their efforts. So when I popped The Monster Walks into my DVD player, I had no idea what I might learn. The first revelation occurred in the opening credits where a character named “Exodus” was introduced. Since this was 1932, the character had to be African American. And comic relief. To spare you the pain of watching the movie, the plot is rather simple: rich man dies, helpless daughter inherits all to the chagrin of surviving brother and domestics, who plot to kill her by pretending to be a murderous ape. There also happens to be a murderous ape locked in the cellar. You get the picture. Aptly named Exodus is purely there as a foil for the educated, privileged white family. He was played by the talented but underappreciated Willie Best. As might (nay, should) be predicted, the scheme of killing the girl backfires and the ape kills the killer. Okay, so I can confess an hour wasted and get on with my reading. But the final scene arrested me.

Exodus wonders to the lawyer (who is there to read the will) why the rich man even had an ape. The lawyer, metaphorically transformed into a judgmental William Jennings Bryan, states that it was because he believed in Darwin’s theory of evolution. Exodus responds by noting some family resemblance to the ape. The blatant racism was hard to take, but in Black History Month the painfully obvious collective sins of our society should be laid bare. In 1932 Fundamentalism, often implicitly allied with racist causes, castigated Darwin’s theory for bringing all of humanity down to the same level. As long as a white god is creating the universe, the Anglo-Saxon can claim superiority. Never mind that Genesis was written by a Jewish writer living in Asia. Self-righteousness comes in many forms, but it always involves bringing others down to a rung below where the blessed stand. Has not the great Rick Santorum told us that even the Crusades were merely misunderstood?

Theomockracy

“From Santorum to Graham, the ferociously religious are doing religion no favors at the moment, and it’s beginning to feel as though we may need to save faith from the extreme pronouncements of the faithful,” so writes Jon Meacham in this week’s issue of Time. Theocracy is a scary word. It didn’t work in ancient Israel, and it is difficult to believe that our society is morally more advanced than things were back then. I mean, they had Moses looking over their shoulders, and Amos, Isaiah, Micah, and Jeremiah to point out each misstep. We have Santorum, Bachmann, Palin, and Gingrich. This playing field would be an abattoir, and I have no doubts that the true prophets would be the only ones left standing should it come to blows. The odd thing is, the ancient Israelites, evolving into the Jewish faith, came to recognize that maybe they misunderstood some of what their stellar, if mythic, founders were saying. Rule by God is great in theory, but in practice it leaves a nation hungry.

It is difficult to assess the sincerity of modern day theocrats. We know that politicians are seldom literate or coherent enough to write their own speeches, and we know that they tell their would-be constituents what they want to hear. It shouldn’t surprise us that they belch forth juvenile pietism and call it God’s will, for we have taught them that elections are won that way. My real fear is that one of them might mean what they say. Could our nation actually survive even half a term with a true theocrat at the helm? W may have played that role, but there was a Cheney pulling the strings behind the curtain. Some guys like the God-talk, others prefer to shoot their friends in the faces. Either way it’s politics.

I take Meacham’s point. In all this posturing and pretending, the would-be theocrats are making a mockery of what the honestly religious take very seriously. If they want to get right with God there are conventional channels to do so. The White House is not one of them. They swear to uphold the ideals of the Constitution that, with considerable foresight, protects us from theocracy. The history they prefer, however, is revisionist and their constitution begins with “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” Their use of the Bible offends those who take the document seriously. Theocracies have never worked in the entire history of the world. Those who ascribe to mythology as the basis for sound government should add Thor, Quetalcoatl, and Baal to their cabinet and pray for a miracle.

The implacable face of politics

Darkness, of Sorts

“The horror! The horror!” During high school I was never assigned Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. Neither was it required for the humanities core course at a highly selective Grove City College. Knowing that my daughter will be reading it for school, I decided to get ahead of the curve for once and read the book. I really wasn’t sure what to expect. I had gathered that it was set in Africa, but that is all I knew. I had even somehow managed to live through the ’80’s without ever seeing Apocalypse Now. Conrad layers the darkness thickly in his story of greed and cruelty in the material trade of ivory. The brief story does not dwell or linger on the suffering, but shows the deep scar never healed in Kurtz’s famous last words. It is a story still worth pondering profoundly.

By chance—in as much as anything happens by chance—I also watched Wolf Creek the same weekend. Again, I was unsure what to expect. I had heard about the movie before, but never with enough detail to give away the plot. Harshly critiqued for its exploitative narrative, the film presents a different setting that experiences the same darkness. Australia, 1990’s. Claiming to be based on actual events, Wolf Creek showcases the frightening duality of Mick Taylor, a character who holds many sleepless nights in store for me. Not that the movie itself is so terribly frightening, but the fact that people like Mick Taylor do exist, upon whom movie makers and novel writers base their characters, is darkness itself. It is the lot of humankind to be a mixed cast of characters, some of whom are decidedly unsavory.

I awake to newspapers bearing the cold, inhumane sentiments callously blasted from the lips of Santorum and Gingrich and their ilk stating that the poor can take care of themselves, the unborn have a right to be born into abject poverty, that women should be made to bow to the whims of men. My native naivety has worn off but slowly, hoping as I always have for sparks of kindness and genuine good will. Those who would be remembered as great leaders would do well to study closely the portraits of Napoleon and Stalin and their friends. And read a little Conrad. To find the still beating heart of darkness we need not venture all the way to Africa or Australia. We can find it in our own backyards.

NASA's view

Hidden in Plain Sight

I have been tweeting the Bible for nearly a month now, and tomorrow—the thirtieth tweet—will see the end of Genesis 1 and the first words of Genesis 2. One of the occupational hazards of having been a biblical scholar for many years is the constant rereading of the same text over and over. I couldn’t even guess how many times I’ve read Genesis 1, in numerous languages, trying to find a key to unlock what is going on there. It is definitely not science—for that it would have had to have been written after science had been invented. Religion and science share that feature: they are human endeavors to understand the matrix in which we find ourselves. Anyone who is truly honest will admit to not being able to trust her- or himself all the time. We have all been betrayed by our convictions now and again. In this day of arrogant religious leaders and arrogant scientists we have little hope of coming to an armistice. Those who claim a special position for the Bible really couldn’t handle the truth in any case.

My twitter verse for today reads, “I have given every green herb for meat: and it was so. And God saw every thing that he had made, and, behold, it was very good. And the even”. Sense units in any text are where we, the readers, draw the limits. Taking this bit as a cue (indeed, the whole of Genesis 1 supports this), God intends humans to be vegetarians. The predatory gleam in the eyes of our religious politicians and televangelists belie their convictions given in public forums. The first rule God instates, after informing our primordial couple to have lots and lots of sex, is not to harm other creatures. At least the sex part seems to have gotten through, although many branches of Christianity repudiate it. The harm part we have received with ambivalence.

In a related development, an op-ed piece in yesterday’s newspaper gives instructions for properly disposing a worn-out Quran. While Christianity has no uniform opinion about where an old Bible goes to die, I find in this question a snapshot of the contradictions inherent in holy writ. We treat certain texts as sacred, and yet, is not the human expression in written form itself some kind of sacred act? Book-burning, no matter the book, strikes deeply at a visceral level those who’ve ever tried to reduce their ideas to what might be replicated on a page. It is our highest human achievement. All texts are sacred. Some may be misguided, and others are blatantly wrong—perhaps even evil—but they are the essence of a human endeavor. Perhaps this is the key I have been seeking all along.

Let there be light

Divine Monsters

Monstrosity and religiosity are sacred siblings. Both are focused on that which is outside—the Other. Now, I have to confess being a bit rusty in my philosophy reading, and I sometimes wonder how I made it through three degrees without ever really encountering post-modernism in all its complexity. Reading Richard Kearney’s Strangers, Gods and Monsters (Routledge, 2003) was therefore a challenge. Like many of those raised in an uncompromising religion, I am innately attracted to monsters. Maybe it was the vivid images of Hell and its denizens; one of the earliest nightmares that I remember was of being dragged to Hell. Some authors suggest Revelation gave Christianity its monsters, but, as Kearney suggests, the connection goes back much, much further.

We fear what we embrace. It is the old division of sacred and profane—a line that has blurred considerably over time—that gives us our monsters on a separate plate from our deities. Otherness contains within itself both bane and blessing. People fear that which differs from them, a fact demonstrated every day by racism, sexism, and homophobia. At the same time, many look to the ultimate alterity for salvation from the mundane. God is just as “other,” more so even, than any human or monster is. Any creature/creator beyond the reach of our feeble grasp should be considered dangerous in our view of the world. And yet the further we get from the middle, the more the ends seem to come together in an ouroboros of divine monstrosity. Those who read Kearney need to be prepared.

While not taking on monsters as I expected he would, Kearney does address them with a sensitivity appropriate to the recognition of the closeness to deity. Nowhere is this clearer than in his superb chapter on melancholy. Being caught between the monstrous and the sublime, the melancholic learns to cope with a disinterested sadness that at times borders on insanity, yet produces flashes of light often more brilliant than those who think their way through problems. This is the affliction of Hamlet who stands on the cusp of being or non-being. For all who believe in a divine power, a strong divide must separate that realm from ours. That same realm, however, also contains our beloved monsters and strangers of every description.

Gas Bubbles

Human brains display a strong preference for patterns. Looking out my office window at the repeating series of windows that make up much of Manhattan, there is a pleasing sense of symmetry. We seek meaning in patterns—this is likely what gave rise to the idea of prophecy; a pattern repeated in nature seems to bear divine significance. Now, I don’t claim to be the best analyst of patterns, but like all humans I look for them and try to make sense of them. With headlines declaring that gasoline prices are on the rise again, set to hit record highs in April, I think, like an elephant that doesn’t forget, over the past several election years and wonder if anyone else has noticed a pattern. When a GOP incumbent is in office, gas prices seem to go down in an election year. When a Democrat is in office, they tend to skyrocket in election years. This is not based on market analysis, but by the sharp pain in my backside that is caused by a starving wallet combined with repeated kicks by the petroleum industry.

Even as far back as high school I remember that alternative-energy cars were being designed. Keep in mind that this was over thirty years ago. When we asked why people couldn’t buy them, our teacher informed us that oil companies buy up patents for competing technologies. Television told us that such energy efficient cars were the stuff of science fiction. With Toyota often leading the way, we have seen, however, that electric-powered cars can perform on the highways as well as city streets. They don’t line the pockets so thickly for the big oil barons, so we’re lead to believe they’re wimpy and underperforming—not manly vehicles at all. To me it sounds like a lot of gas.

I’m not sure how America came to be under the ponderous thumb of the oil industry, but the finger-pointing and downright criminal activity of such companies as Enron and BP should be telling us something. It may be mere coincidence, but the past several Republican presidents have been very friendly with big oil. I remember when Clinton ran against Bush Senior that prices of gas dropped so low that a ten could fill the tank on our little Toyota. Here we are with a Dem in the House and prices are set to soar. Perhaps my cynicism is misplaced, but I don’t recall seeing many oil barons standing in the breadlines—not even after Enron imploded. No doubt we will be told it’s just the ebb and flow of the market, nothing more. No matter what the excuse may be, I have an idea which way the flow is going, and it has a pipeline from Americans’ bank accounts right into that internal combustion engine that is fueled by creatures long dead. Death and oil, by whatever means, go together.

Take me home, country roads