Monthly Archives: March 2012

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.