Paradise by Half

Some times the Bible is best taken in small doses. I’m no technical guru, but I do know that Twitter doesn’t always display the Bible bits I type in daily. Perhaps in some far distant future civilization that has learned how to recover “data” from fried pieces of digital storage devices, the Bible will be woefully incomplete. Maybe not woefully, depending on whose point of view sees it. Reading over passages worn smooth by timeless repetition, it is sometimes difficult to notice the harsh undertones. My twittering is up to Genesis 3 now, the infamous Garden of Eden episode. Over the last few days I’ve tweeted, “And the Lord God called unto Adam and said unto him, Where art thou? And he said, I heard thy voice in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked; and I hid myself. And he said, Who told thee that thou wast naked? Hast thou eaten of the tree, whereof I commanded thee that thou shouldest not eat? And the man said, The woman whom thou gavest to be with me, she gave me of the tree, and I did eat. And the Lord God said unto the woman, What is this that thou hast done?”

The weary “blame it on the woman” trope aside, several things stand out. God seems to be interested only in Adam. Perhaps the divine Dad wants to take his boy aside for a man-to-man chat, but it seems more likely in the context that Eve is simply irrelevant. Even Adam’s response is completely void of Eve, “I heard,” “I was afraid,” “I hid.” For a man about to shove the blame off onto his significant other (sorry, Tea Partiers, nowhere does Genesis say Adam and Eve were ever married), he is strangely circumspect about his recondite female. Even God sounds surprised, “Who told thee that thou wast naked?” Hmmm, who else is there in the Garden? Adam suddenly abandons the first person singular and begins his response with, “The woman whom thou gavest…” Blame anyone but Adam. The tragic disappearance of Eve until blame is to be attributed should warn us that the remainder of the Bible will not be a happy book.

The first chapters of Genesis have a lot of uncovering going on. God, like a detective in a CSI drama, tries to uncover the mystery of the naked man. When man is found naked he blames the woman, not even bothering with her name. Much is revealed here. Coming as it does as the first biblical story of human interaction, this tale sets the stage for all subsequent developments. From this point onward, with rare exceptions, the story will be a male narrative. Women will be assigned to, literally, support roles. Is it any wonder that women gather to protest against women’s rights, when under the thumb of such teaching? I suggest that what is required is even more uncovering. If we examine the bare facts of the Bible, we might be able finally to get to the root of this problem. That root lies deep in the literal interpretation of mythology.

Who's missing?

Where’s Waldo?

I first learned about Waldensians in a class on the Middle Ages. In the centuries before the Reformation took place, some Christians in Europe resented the wealth and ostentation of the Catholic Church—the only show in town. In response the Waldensians preached a radical simplicity, including poverty. The established church, enamored of plutocracy and power, didn’t appreciate this challenge. To the average peasant, I suspect, the sincerity of the Waldensians was a bit more obvious than those who represented an institution enamored of its stature. When Catholicism learned about Waldensians and their imitation of Jesus’ lifestyle they did what came naturally. They killed them. Accusing those who insisted on helping the poor and needy of heresy gave the justification to the church’s decision to eliminate them.

What occasioned the most surprise, as I was recently reading about them again, was the discovery that the Waldensians still exist. The church has often been thorough in its elimination of those who cross it (note the antics of Rick Santorum), but somehow some Waldensians managed to live on through the persecutions of the trials of heresy. Yet the church still likes to bluster and condemn many to Hell, even if just metaphorically. I must admit that such posturing worries me. It is not in vain that the church has frequently insinuated itself into politics. Anyone who has been awake in America since the 1980’s can’t have helped but to have noticed.

Ironically, the three major monotheistic traditions began as counter-cultural movements. Once the religions gained political power the oppression of others began, thus starting the cycle all over again. The Waldensians are an excellent paradigm of what occurs when a religious body attains too much power. Heresy is so dangerous because it highlights hypocrisy. Claiming divine sanction for human weakness is a charade easily understood by those who take the time to watch closely. The revisionist history of America that we hear presidential hopefuls espousing are warning signs. The church may not have reached all the Waldensians in the Dark Ages, but it still keeps on trying. Fortunately the followers of Peter Waldo are sometimes hard to find.

Renters, All

Ownership is an odd concept for mortal creatures. With limited time to spend on a finite planet, we devise rules that give exclusive rights to some while denying access to others. I have never owned property (tellingly called “real estate”)—the life of those who stumble into higher education doesn’t really lend lenders any confidence of one’s ability to repay debts. I spent too much income, I guess, on my education. In any case, the concept of ownership seems to be endemically human. In most societies we want that thing that we found, that we picked up and moved with us, to remain where we put it so that we can access it again. That particular stick or stone that caught our eye for utility or beauty—it is that we wish to own. Soon humans are building vacation homes in the regions of stunning natural beauty that dot an industrialized landscape, vacation homes where they can get away from it all. Humans owning nature.

Recently I read a story in the New Jersey Star-Ledger about beachfront property “owners” in New Jersey suing over beach reclamation. Now before bursting out into peals of laughter, please be aware that those who claim New Jersey lacks natural beauty have never visited the state in the spring. Once outside the urban sprawl surrounding New York City, Jersey is, for the most part, very pleasant. Many of the beaches are pristine. Of course, pristinity invites affluence. The wealthy like to settle where the views are nice. And so when the state tried to prevent beach erosion by building dunes the rich cried foul and began to sue. It looks like the state will have to pay out. The very state that I, along with countless others who can’t afford a single house, support by our taxes. That money is now being piped into the pockets of those whose summer homes now have a slightly diminished view. My heart bleeds.

One of the facts of life on the Atlantic coast is hurricanes. Another is nor’easters. Both of these storms erode beaches at a terrifying rate. And when the beach is gone, whose house will be in the ocean? Those who wanted the dunes removed. Money is just distilled ownership. Those flimsy pieces of paper have no inherent value. It is difficult even to believe in money when you never see it. Electrons zipping through the Internet are the only sign that I’ve been paid. Yet we value it above all else. I’m not sure how this fits in with a gospel that condemns money and a Jesus who suggests the only way to heaven is to give it all away. Well, maybe it all fits, as long as you don’t block my view of the ocean. After all, owning part of a planet entitles you to some feeling of self-importance. Or so I suppose.

Who's really in charge here?

Brother, Can You Spare a Term?

Last Friday the Chronicle of Higher Education had a blog post asking how NTT (Non-Tenure Track) faculty pay the rent. In the light of recent news stories about the nascent gathering of data on the forgotten generation of scholars, universities are finally starting to scratch their heads and wonder, like Frankenstein, what they’ve created. Well, the article asked a question and invited responses. I couldn’t help myself—six scary years of my life were spent in that dark chasm of no security—and since I offered a few sentences about my experience, email reminders popped up for the next several hours when other comments were added. It made for a depressing day. All day long stories appeared of women and men with PhDs who live on food stamps, fall behind in their rent, and even cancel the classes the unsuspecting parents pay so much for because they can’t afford gas for their cars. Meanwhile, let’s build a new stadium.

Education is the most important invention of all time. Without it we’d still be warming our toes around the fire in our cave, wearing smelly animal skins. The natural enemy of education is sometimes the institution. Institutions, especially those that continually turn an envious eye towards corporations (often among the least enlightened of human ventures) as a model for emulation, are steering a sinking ark. Both church and university have become poster children for the corruption that creeps so insidiously into organized structures that have lost the way of pure intentions. The call of the wealth is far more savage than the call of the wild. The wolf pack does not devour its own.

Well-paid industrial analysts, I’m sure, are being offered handsome sums to figure out how to make universities more efficient. University presidents and sports coaches drawing down six-or-seven figure salaries shrug their flummoxed shoulders—what could possibly be the problem? Perhaps we need even more upper-level administration to sit and think this out. Meanwhile parents stressed to their financial wit’s end are slowly beginning to learn that the ones teaching their daughters and sons are the adjuncts who now make up well over half the teaching force in higher education. I would not presume to guess which direction higher education is going. It does seem entirely probable, however, that when the wolves are done with this meal, a scattering of bare bones will be all that’s left. After all, in the wild a lone wolf is a dead wolf.

The corporate emblem.

A Tiger’s Tale

When my wife finished Yann Martel’s Life of Pi she said, “You’ve got to read this book!” Philosophical novels don’t often capture the interest of publishers or agents, but when they manage to slip through the fine-mesh mail-armor of the guild, they sometimes become best-sellers. Publishers often underestimate the intelligence and the hunger of the average reader. I was glad to have something so provocative to read on my long daily commute. Since the book was published in 2001 I won’t worry too much about spoiler alerts. It should come as no surprise that the biblical flood theme comes through a book where a zookeeper’s son is stranded on a lifeboat with various forms of wildlife. The most unexpected and endearing member of this menagerie, the tiger Richard Parker, is also the most deadly. How easy it would be to spin off in a Melvillesque direction of the beast as a representation of an uncomfortable God! Indeed, when Richard Parker scampers away when the boat runs aground, Pi laments how it was like losing God.

Setting the stage for this development is the tale of three religions. As a boy raised in India Piscine (Pi) is surrounded by traditional Hindu culture. On a family vacation he notices that atop the three hills are three houses of worship: Hindu, Christian, and Muslim. Curiosity draws the young boy in, and by the end of part one he is happily and concurrently Muslim, Hindu, and Christian, to the deep chagrin of the various religious leaders. They, coincidentally, all meet Pi with his parents one day in the park and each insists that although they encourage the boy’s continued membership in their tradition, he must drop the other two. Like any sensible person, Pi has chosen the safe road when it comes to conflicting religions: accept them all. It is only religion itself that deconstructs his triune belief system.

After his eventual rescue, Pi is questioned by insurance agents concerning the fate of the ship. They cannot believe his incredible tale, because they can only believe what they have seen for themselves. Pi asks, “What do you do when you’re in the dark?” An appropriate question for us all. This story is a parable about perceiving more than what can be seen. Tigers are hidden all around. Sometimes we call them Hobbes. Sometimes Richard Parker. They are protectors and they are dangerous. Some people call them God. In the end our protagonist is left without the divine presence that had kept him alive all the way across the Pacific Ocean. When the book is over, I think we would all admit, it is the tiger that we miss most of all.

Professor Little

There I was, some 3000 miles from home, in the office of a professor I’d never met before. On her desk a Gorgias Press catalogue. In that catalogue a miniscule picture with my diminutive face. Such are the little ironies of life. My ric rac career began when others started making suggestions about how being a janitor might not be living up to my full potential. Sometimes, often, I wonder if they were correct. Cleaning up after other people’s messes in the halls of our educational system seems like an incredibly honest career to me. Instead I have steered a course between the halls of academia and the halls of commerce. It is easy to suppose that I’m not really in control since even if I choose the general direction, I haven’t selected the specific circumstances. Recently I attended a conference where Gorgias Press had a booth. I looked over the tables, spying names of authors whom I had given their first start in publishing. With books struggling for elbow room in my own head, it is a bittersweet experience.

Watching the glacial ballet of higher education unfold, it often occurs to me that universities are not smart. Many brilliant minds work in them, and much light shines from them, but on an institutional level decisions are often made that jeopardize the entire enterprise. Over-emphasis on sports, over-utilization of adjuncts, over-payment of administrators—these are not signs of soaring intelligence. They are signs of institutions in a muddle as to their true identity. Are they businesses or centers of creativity and education? The basic business model is not “one size fits all,” and universities managed to maintain an enviable idealism until they began to emulate the corporate world. The tattered results lie all around us.

All through my educational journey, there was no guiding light. In my experience, higher education was a wondrous journey that suddenly terminated when I didn’t measure up to someone else’s standard of Christianity. By that point, I was ill-prepared for the savage politics of higher education. The transition from author to editor may sound simple enough, but things are seldom what they seem. Education may not make one smart, but it sure puts ideas in one’s head. Sometimes I reflect on those books that will never be written. I’ve never been any publisher’s darling, but here I am staring at a little picture of a little man. I’m sure there must be a lesson here somewhere, but I’m not smart enough to figure out what it might be.

Unholy Brides

Hollywood is seldom accused of being a religious venue. Indeed, carrying on from an earlier distrust of theater as idle entertainment, some Christian groups early on deemed movies as tools of the devil. (Some relaxed that harsh assessment when Cecil B. DeMille came on the scene and started offering biblically based epics.) Many directors and writers, to judge from recent vapid box office successes, consider action or titillation sufficient to draw in the dollars. Yet, movies have often proven to be an outlet for the intellect as well, with profound, intricate, and important themes unfolding against the silver screen. The movies we watch reveal much about who we are. A surprising number of them, despite early evangelical concerns, have decidedly religious themes or messages. My regular readers know of my confession to being one of the monster kid generation, and as an adult I re-watch those movies with senses attuned to their religiosity.

Last night, as I watched The Bride of Frankenstein, I was repeatedly reminded of the role religion plays throughout the film. From the opening lines of Lord Byron through to the monster’s moral judgment on humanity as he is about to pull the switch, religious language, symbols, and implications practically tumble over each other to get to the audience. The concept of life—the divine prerogative—being absconded by human scientists forms the skeleton of this story based on Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s original work. While Shelley can hardly be considered the poster-girl for religious scruples, her work, and its adaptation into this movie, bristle with the implications of usurping the divine. In the words of Dr. Pretorius, “To a new world of gods and monsters!”

The Bride of Frankenstein is not alone in this aspect of mixing religion and monstrosity. Hollywood of the 1930s was a money-hungry haven, but the classic monster tales that began to shape movie-watchers’ sensibilities often included religious themes. Dracula has his resurrection and aversion to crucifixes. The Mummy arises from ancient Egyptian ritual magic. The Wolfman suffers a gypsy curse. Frankenstein is the power of God incarnate. When the final reel is placed on the projector, we discover that God has rejected all these human attempts to ascend to the heavens. Hollywood gives us conventional religious endings. More recent and daring approaches have emerged, but seldom have they captured the American imagination like the creature features of the 1930s. The religious veneer may have been thicker in those days, but the underlying message could have chilled the blood of the finger-waving evangelists. Even the Bible, from the beginning, has its monsters.

Battle Billboards

Perhaps the oddest intangible accompanying democracy is the concept that all things are negotiable. Add to that a capitalist sensibility that everything has its price and even truth itself feels like a matter of debate. We see this all the time with Creationists so desperately wanting the Bible to the “true” that they twist science into a fairy tale noose from which to hang their literalist god. The tendency, however, does not stop with them.

Surely one of the most tense stretches of pavement in the country is NJ 495 leading into the Lincoln Tunnel. The aorta pumping countless metallic cells into the heart of Manhattan, drivers and passengers often sit motionless in it for seemingly endless periods to crawl forward like an inchworm entering the Olympics. It is there that Battle Billboards takes place.

I have followed the Atheist billboard development with some interest. In my limited experience with the Lincoln Tunnel, I have noted the digital billboard on the Jersey side bears the message of atheist.org near the major Christian holidays, so as Easter approaches the newest one reads “Celebrate Living Without God” to promote a rally on the Mall in DC. Both religion and science make claims of how to know the truth. Truth with a capital T should be non-negotiable by definition. The problem is that nobody has the Truth. We’re still trying to figure it out. Atheist.org holds a firm conviction that life would be better without religion. Clearly not everyone agrees. Clarity, it seems, is the chimera of debates over Truth.

A few seconds after the atheist.org ad flashes off the big screen, an ad for Wrath of the Titans (coming soon to theaters) flashes on. Irony can be sweeter than honey and as bitter as the Dead Sea. The most recent Clash of the Titans (2010) borrowed little from classical mythology beyond the names and large plot lines. An atheistic Perseus just doesn’t fit the classical taste. In the new film, Zeus—surely one of the prototypes for modern conceptions of God—is captured by Hades and has to be rescued by his unbelieving son. Could any movie be a more thinly disguised Easter story? Atheists? Wrath of the Titans? Which way to jump? Fortunately for me, traffic going into the Lincoln Tunnel in these lanes is one way. That’s the kind of certainty we all can live with.

Light from above or hopeless ambiguity?

Alternate Reality

Recall a time when you did something bad. We have all done it now and again. Even the memory possesses the power to churn the stomach and lower the brow. I just finished reading Native Voices: American Indian Identity and Resistance, edited by Richard A. Grounds, George E. Tinker, and David E. Wilkins. The essays in this volume are about Native Americans by Native Americans. Many of us are taught to believe that the United States government had found some way to deal peacefully, after some bloody battles, with those hostile to the arrival of Europeans, but the truth is much sadder and more sordid. While some may say the essays in this book dismiss academic standards, I have been on the receiving end of academic standards enough to know that even highly educated people can sometimes only cower and the reality is how you feel. That is what comes through every page of this book: what it feels like to be misrepresented, demonized, caricatured, forgotten. European colonizers stole what they could in the name of Christianity and left a legacy of tears.

I nevertheless learned a great deal from this book. Here, I came to understand, not everyone agrees with the standards that Euro-Americans use to measure the world. Nowhere is this clearer than in the Native American critique of science. Those of us trained in this method feel a knee-jerk reaction when it is questioned, but those willing to consider, to ponder, will realize that a scientific worldview is a culturally conditioned form of interpretation. Other forms exist, although they have frequently been silenced. There is more than one way of knowing. In many Native American religious traditions the land itself is sacred. Being removed from tribal lands was tantamount to being separated from tribal divinity. We might be better able to dismiss it all as ancient history were it not for the fact that the oppression continues to this day.

Comparison with another oppressed religion came to mind. Ancient Israel is understood only imperfectly, but we know that the land was crucial to Israel’s sense of identity. We should, as heirs of the Judeo-Christian tradition, be sympathetic to Indigenous American sensitivity to the bond between land and religion. In the former case, the United States supported the re-formation of Israel in the 1940s. We still keep our own indigenous people out of sight and use their land with impunity. Reading Native Voices raises some very troubling specters indeed. The colonizing religion here was Christianity, a religion that says it is more blessed to give, but is more than willing to take. And to invent a tortured theological justification for the action; it’s manifest destiny—whatcha gonna do? It is time we confront what was done to the people who were here first. I have no solution, but reading Native Voices is an appropriate way to start the discussion.

Battle the Angels

Over the weekend I finally got around to watching Battle Los Angeles. Now, I’ve never been a fan of war movies, but I do have a soft spot for aliens, so I decided to tough it out and see who won. I knew the historic event upon which the premise of the film was based took place in 1942, before flying saucers captured the American imagination. The official Air Force story suggests that old nemesis to our control of the air: weather balloons. Considering that Los Angeles was blacked out and ground forces lobbed 1,400 artillery rounds at the things, I wonder why the balloons at my daughter’s birthday parties never managed to last the night. In any case, the movie runs with the premise that aliens have taken over the city of angels and the U. S. Marines are the ones to get the job done when it comes to taking out aliens. (The Air Force, one expects, is too busy chasing weather balloons.)

Gratuitous aliens and science fiction action may be merit enough to get into this blog, but there is actually a more compelling reason. Back in my teaching days, I tried to demonstrate to students how deeply the Bible pervades our culture. When I taught those long summer and winter term courses, sometimes lingering four hours into the night, I would break up the inevitability of my lectures with a few movie clips to show them just how often the Bible shows up in films. Sometimes the cameo appearance is a matter of fleeting seconds, but when directors pay attention to every detail of a scene, we can be sure that Bibles don’t just show up by accident. Battle Los Angeles is no different. As our platoon is being air-lifted into the alien hot zone, one of the soldiers (I couldn’t figure out which one, since most of them get dispatched in fairly short order) is shown reading the Bible. The camera hovers there a second before pulling back to show the pre-battle chatter.

The viewer is probably supposed to be reminded that there are no atheists in foxholes, as the saying goes. Or it is a sign of how serious this is: before the big guns come out, bring on the Bible? In our culture the Bible has that kind of role. I recently read of a Catholic astronomer who was seeking alien civilizations in order to convert them to Christianity. The premise is as intriguing as it is arrogant. Human beings can be tenacious when it comes to matters of belief. In Battle Los Angeles, however, we speak with our guns and our missiles. But first we read our Bibles. Without wishing to ascribe to much intentional subtlety to the movie, this might be the underlying paradigm. Once the battle begins in earnest, the Bible never comes back into play. It is human ingenuity that wins the day, and perhaps the aliens are being taught to pray.

Spare Change

The vernal equinox snuck up on me this year, and I learned that it can also be what those in medieval Europe used to call a “dismal day.” The sun was out and the temperature was unseasonably warm, but beginning with breakfast and all the way until bed-time, things just didn’t go according to plan. My mother had been admitted to the hospital, and I live some 600 miles away. When I called to see how she was doing, I spoke with a bureaucratic nurse who could neither “confirm or deny” that she was even there. I wasn’t aware that my mother had connections with the military, government, or covert operations. When I said I was just looking for my mother I got read the riot act including—this is the truth—having the Hippocratic Oath cited at me. I think, in all honesty, it might be spelled Hypocritic. Don’t get me wrong—I think it is important to protect people’s rights, and I sure the duty sergeant—excuse me, nurse, was only worried about lawyers and lawsuits. We have constructed a country so insidious that a boy can’t talk to his own mother. Eventually she put my call through to the patient’s ward where one of the patients answered the phone and went to find my mother for me. We call it civilization.

I’m not the most technical of guys. Think about it—I majored in very dead languages. When my wife surprised me with an iPhone for Christmas, my brother-in-law kindly agreed to get in on the surprise and took care of the details. We went into the Verizon store after the holiday and switched the phone (with the phone number I’ve had for years) into my name. Nearly four months later, when I tried to change some plan details, both he and I had to call Verizon several times to get the mess straightened out. One of the communications giants seems to have made itself so technical that it can no longer understand a simple request. When the Verizon representative asked if I understood the user agreement I said yes. Have you ever read one? No one without a law degree could possibly understand. Even Moses didn’t have a cell phone. I had to spend an entire evening getting my own phone back under my own name. Our society has taken what should have been a two-minute phone-call and made a mini-series of it.

So, is it because the vernal equinox is so early this year that my world went haywire for a day? We live in a society where it is nearly impossible to prove you are who you say you are. And children are not allowed to speak to their own mother. Lawyers have taken the law meant to shield us and made a bludgeon of it. Communications experts obfuscate. It may seem random, but these two phenomena have the very same evil as their root. They are twin trunks springing from greed. The nurse can’t put me through because a lawyer may sue. My phone number can be reassigned to my name, with added costs, approved by lawyers that only corporate giants can afford. Human need has been reduced to terms of cash. The trees are budding. The air is warmer. Flowers are in bloom. But it certainly doesn’t feel like spring to me. That chill you feel is cold, hard cash. We are all just spare change.

The weight of a human soul, legally.

The Afterthought

This week I finished Genesis 2 on my venture to tweet the Bible, and even before reaching the famous snake scene in Genesis 3, I blushed. Not in a good way. Reading each word of the text in King James English (ironically, technically Elizabethan English), it becomes clear just how androcentric the text is. As a reader with sensitivity to historical eras, it is important not to judge the past by present standards. Nevertheless, it is difficult not to be offended at the assumed male primacy that had begun to be dismantled, only to be propped up again by sacred writ. As soon as people began to realize that sexual dimorphism did not equate to sexual dominance, the Bible came into the hands of the laity and there, beginning in Genesis 2, became the prooftext that women were made for men. Note: “for Adam there was not found an help meet for him. And the Lord God caused a deep sleep to fall upon Adam, and he slept: and he took one of his ribs, and closed up the flesh instead thereof; And the rib, which the Lord God had taken from man, made he a woman, and brought her unto the man. And Adam said, This is now bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh: she shall be called Woman, because she was taken out of Man.”

One of these things is not like the others...

This passage is, of course, very familiar. Too familiar. Accompanying the ready availability of the Bible was the concept of divine writing. To a society of chamber pots and horse manure in the streets, the idea that God could write a book was sensible enough. The problem is, as our sophistication grew, our biblical sense couldn’t keep pace. Centuries later with probes soaring beyond our solar system, rovers on the moon, and space stations circling the planet, we still believe God wrote a book. And since God is male, the man’s point of view is normative. Of course, no one knows the reason for the story of Adam’s rib, but there is no doubt that ancient society, at least in this instance, was hopelessly patriarchal. It is society that determined which words would be considered sacred. The tale they chose matched their worldview.

The problem is that worldview gave an excuse to a patriarchal tour de force that has lasted for dozens of generations leaving women in their biblically predetermined place. There may be no sin as insidious as literalism. Those who cling to the King James do so only with special pleading, for anyone who has studied Hebrew (or any foreign language) knows that translation is an inexact science. Even Genesis 1 with man and woman created the same day, both in the image of God, still lists man first. Ironically the literalists miss the humor of a God who thinks man will be satisfied with the animals. Presumably all the animals were guys at this point, although the Bible literally doesn’t say. No religion that claims victims has the right to declare itself universally true.

Map is Territory

Far be it from me to challenge the established certitudes of the experts in academia, but I’ve been beginning to think maybe map is territory. This insight came to me from an unorthodox source (of course). I was watching War of the Colossal Beast over the weekend—among the corniest of corny 1950’s sci fi flicks. If you were born around the middle of the last century you already know the premise: a nuclear device has converted a man into a towering giant who resists all attempts to stop him or keep him under control. The reason that map and territory came to mind was that this 60-foot tall man (an apt companion for the 50-foot woman) could not be found by the authorities although he was terrorizing Los Angeles. Just as I was climbing on my high horse I realized that the problem they faced was communication. (And maybe they needed glasses.)

From the perspective of the twenty-first century and the vast network of instant communication (you can tweet your latest observation while on public transit, deep under the Hudson), map has become territory. There is nowhere left for the sixty-foot giant to hide. I am not the only one to speculate on the effect this shift will have on religion, but when we have become so intricately inter-connected, we seem to have squeezed the mystery out of life. Every trail has been blazed, every path has been trod. Old Ecclesiastes is laughing up his wizard’s sleeve. If a giant escapes among us its location will be texted across the territory second by nano-second. There is nowhere for us to hide either.

Our dependence on electronic media has changed part of the human race. It is easy to forget that in places not too distant, some of them even in the developed nations, there are human beings untouched by the revolution that has compressed map and territory. I have to wonder if their lives are better or worse for the ease that pervades our culture of flying fingers and ultra-dexterous thumbs. Avoiding the concept of the noble savage, I sense of kind of purity in the life free from the constant buzzing of 3G and 4G networks, wi-fi hotspots, and microwave towers disguised as trees. Theirs is a life where map is not territory, where being unplugged is natural and normal. It is a world where giants might hide in the night, and those who fear them may be all the more human for doing so.

Sacred Philadelphia

What makes a space sacred? There is no agreement on that issue, but it is clear that considering a specific location numinous, holy, or just special is something that even the most secular do. We trek to the places where something happened, maybe hoping for a personal epiphany or enlightenment. So yesterday I found myself in Philadelphia on the trail of Edgar Allan Poe. Like some other famous figures of the past, Poe was essentially homeless—no place claimed him (though now many do). Several years of his short life were spent in Philadelphia, and only one of his residences still survives there. On a pleasant Saturday it was clear that many others were drawn to this sacred space on pilgrimages motivated by diverse needs and curiosities. My family has gone on literary trips for many years, visiting the places of writers—for, at the end of the day, every piece of sacred writ has a writer.

Poe's house on Spring Garden

I can’t recall a time, after I began to read, when I did not favor Poe. Like some other inspirational figures he lived a short life, frequently rejected by his peers. Sad circumstances haunted him and he expressed them so well. His was a rare gift. Standing in his Philadelphia house, I guess I might have been hoping that, on some level, he might know that his life had touched mine. We all seem to leave an intangible part of ourselves in places we have been. Even the hardest skeptic of the “paranormal” will travel countless miles to come to some location of significance. There is no logical reason to do so. It is perhaps the most human of religious impulses. I saw no specters, heard no ghostly voices. But I saw and listened and wondered.

Writing is among the canon of sacred activities. It is taking what is hidden safely inside the confines of our minds and offering the opportunity to others to read it. Frequently it is ignored, lost in the noise. Life is too busy to sit down and read unless some teacher or professor assigns a task with grade consequences. We miss, however, so many opportunities to explore the legacy bequeathed to us by great minds. Our lives are driven by economics, not enlightenment. Poe died poor and largely unmourned in Baltimore after having called many locations home. Those locations are now shrines. I suspect he may have been very surprised to learn that over a century and a half later some people would attempt to follow in his footsteps for what can only be described as religious reasons.

Saints and Snakes

I am not now, nor have I ever been, Catholic. So why am I wearing green today? It could be that a drop or two of Irish blood courses through my veins from a stow-away great-great-grandmother, or the assurance that, as an American mutt some Irish must have gotten in somehow. Or maybe it is more than that. From my youngest days, even before I knew of my family history (and nobody had bothered to inquire), I still wore green on Saint Patrick’s Day. Getting off the bus at school and seeing so many people with otherwise so little in common coming together to wear shades of green on the same day was somehow inspiring and made me feel like part of something larger than myself. It was a day of fun, and decidely not one of doctrine or repressive decrees about women or homosexuals or even Protestants. It was a day of unity.

Can a day based on church mythology ever long remain a day of peaceful inclusion of others? In college I met militant Protestants who insisted that orange be worn on Saint Patrick’s Day to stand in solidarity with the Protestant minority. I heard news reports of gays being excluded from otherwise festive Saint Patrick’s Day parades in major cities. Maybe the snakes driven out of Ireland have lodged themselves in the souls of those who plant divisiveness—but it occurs to me that I’m being unfair to the snakes.

In a tiny time capsule of twenty-four hours, Saint Patrick’s Day is a miniature paradigm of the ambivalence that we call religion. At its best it draws people of all backgrounds together for a celebration as large as life itself. At the same time, it is the ultimate in exclusion—the statement that we are special in a way you are not. Green, the color of Ireland, is an apt symbol for the day. In the planet world, the large swaths of earth seen from high above, green is the color of life. Each spring the shooting forth of green is eagerly awaited as the plant kingdom reveals to us that a refreshing change is in the air. Among many animal species, however, green stands for illness, and perhaps impending death. So here I am wearing green—not Catholic, not plant, not wishing to make unequal divisions. It is just like a religious holiday to celebrate ambiguity.

What's love got to do with it?