Music has always meant a lot to me. I am, however, not musically talented. As I child I never saw The Sound of Music (or Mary Poppins, for that matter). College finally introduced me to Julie Andrews when friends were aghast at how deprived my childhood had been. Sound of Music was cute, but I didn’t really “get it” until someone explained that it is largely a true story. There really was a Maria von Trapp and Captain. Much of the story, of course, my colleagues (not really knowing) told me was fabricated. My daughter has recently returned from a musical tour of part of southern Europe, centering mostly on Austria. The tour group visited Salzburg and saw where part of The Sound of Music was filmed. When she returned home we decided to visit Stowe, Vermont. This mountain community, known for its skiing, is where some of the von Trapp family still live. Not sure what to expect, we signed on for a tour of the Trapp Family Lodge (a little beyond the comfort range of someone unemployed until recently).

The first surprise came when Sam von Trapp, the grandson of Maria, introduced himself as the tour guide. Many of the mysteries of fact versus fiction were cleared up—I can’t reveal it all here, otherwise you might not visit Stowe for yourself—and the person of Maria von Trapp became much more like the rest of us. During an interview taped four years before she died in 1987, Maria explained how the course of her life was changed by the mountains around Salzburg. Feeling the presence of God there, she joined the convent that sent her to tutor one of Baron von Trapp’s daughters and that eventually led to her marriage and the formation of the Trapp family singers. She was urged on in her marriage, as the movie indicates, by the sisters of the convent.

A second surprise emerged as the narrative turned to how the von Trapp family tried to help out others in times of difficulties. Not content to count themselves uniquely blessed by having escaped Austria the day before the Nazis closed the borders of the country, they sent supplies to those who were still under threat of Hitler’s regime after the Anschluss. The home made famous by the movie became Nazi headquarters in Austria. It seems that in this case religion led to a favorable result. Some critics argue that religion brings no good. I have to admit that often I feel as though attempting to justify it at all is a fool’s errand. It is good to be reminded once in a while that lives are sometimes changed for the better by what they believe to be the divine voice. Even in my horror film world, The Sound of Music still has its place.

Sweet Heaven

On a weekend trip to Waterbury, Vermont, I found the sweetest cemetery ever. Ben and Jerry’s ice cream factory features a Flavor Graveyard where tombstones to deceased flavors stand. The epitaphs are frequently witty and the experience is lighthearted for kids and adults alike. I wondered, as I stood there looking at the monument to Bovinity Divinity, at the persistence of the belief in an aftertaste—what I presume is a flavor’s version of an afterlife. We like to believe in something more, sometimes at the expense of the here and now. Nevertheless, Ben and Jerry stand for something more than quality ice cream. Theirs is a company with social consciousness, started by two young idealists who have managed to keep their integrity in spite of success. I couldn’t help but to feel impressed by the entire operation. Frozen dairy with a conscience.

The larger question, I suppose, is why success so frequently leads to a loss of concern for others. People possess differing levels of empathy, just as animals do, but it appears so starkly in the case of those who prefer their profit at the expense of others, sometimes even the entire remainder of the world. In a universe of one, no one is rich. And seeing a successful company that has managed to pull off relative equity in the world of business has proven that it is possible. Too many idealists let go too soon.

Perhaps it is the rarified air at higher elevation, or perhaps I’m being brushed with the wings of angels at this altitude closer to the celestial sphere, but this giddiness that I’m feeling is likely born of bonhomie. There is no necessary correlation between success and lack of concern for others. I am reminded of this as I walk to work in far away Manhattan. The sidewalks, even in posh business areas, host ambiguous stains and crushed cockroaches. Even the wealthy must step out of their limos sometimes. When they do, they will plant their feet on the same dirty sidewalks as the rest of us do. Their elevators may lift them to pristine heights, but the bottoms of their shoes are just as full of the remains of everyday lives as are mine. From now on, however, when I see Ben and Jerry wrappers among the detritus on the streets, I will be smiling, thinking about the aftertaste.

Symbolic Confusion

While on a drive through New England, we were discussing Islam with our daughter. Now I’m no expert on Islam, but I have covered it in a few classes. It has had a presence in America for a couple of centuries at least, probably first arriving with slaves from Africa. As we drove into Springfield, Massachusetts, I saw four slender towers rising into the sky off the highway and said, “Look, it’s a mosque,” supposing the towers to be minarets. When we drew closer, it was clear that these were really just the decorated finials of a quite secular bridge. Embarrassed at my mistake, my family was kind enough to console me with the suggestion that the four towers from that angle did look like the accoutrements of a mosque. (Earlier in the day I had seen my first Sikh temple in Connecticut, so the mistake might be at least slightly justified.) My wife mentioned how misidentified symbolism could be confusing. This spurred me to consider how symbolism frequently becomes a stand-in for reality.

I’ve been reading about witches lately. Like many legendary fears, witches can be interpreted in many ways. They have their origins in the belief that nature may be manipulated by will over a distance and had been feared for the effectiveness of their powerful spells. After the tragic witch-hunts of the Middle Ages ran their horrible course, witches came to be seen as the result of overactive imaginations and rampant superstition. The modern Pagan movement has revitalized the witch in a somewhat safer environment, and has applied various symbols to it. Thor’s hammer, the ankh, and the pentacle are considered the symbols of modern witches by various covens and practitioners. While passing by a department store on East 43rd Street, I noticed apparel decorated with pentacles—the symbolism adopted by some witches.

This reminded me of a fracas that erupted some years back when a fashion designer incorporated the ornate letters of the Arabic script into the design of a sleek dress that left less to the imagination than a traditional burka. The designer expressed surprise when Muslims objected to words from the Quran being used to decorate immodestly covered women’s bodies. In both these scenarios symbolism has demonstrated its power for being what philosophers call the Ding an sich, the thing itself. Symbols are often that way, bridging as they do the worlds of religious thought and secular existence. I wonder how much we as a society would gain from letting bridges be symbols that participate in the reality they represent.

Seedtime and Harvest

With the drought deepening over about half the United States, it is with not inconsiderable irony that I am reading the story of Noah’s flood. I have been tweeting the Bible for some months now and am just reaching the end of the fascinating account of the deluge. The difference in the case of the drought is obvious, but similar. Having spent some time in the Midwest, I came to know how intimately and intensely many of the citizens trust God’s providential care (this is true elsewhere, of course, but I noticed it more in that region). When disasters come, however, just like an animist would suggest, answers will be sought in the divine world. “While the earth remaineth, seedtime and harvest, and cold and heat, and summer and winter, and day and night shall not cease.” Genesis 8.22 rounds out God’s plan for the perpetuity of nature’s cycles, stating in just the previous verse that he knows people to be wicked and will never punish them for it again, as he did in the flood. Such biblical assurances, however, do little to allay fears when crops are dying in the field.

The problem in looking for answers in nature is their ambiguity. Just consider the record number of church picnics that haven’t been rained out this year—the number of prayers I’ve heard for the staying of rain for human convenience is surely a reflection of how intimate divine interaction with the workings of nature is supposed to be. One of the benefits of science has been its ability to straighten out all the cards in the deck, tapping them on the table-top and squeezing them into line. How would God weigh prayers for no rain so that an outdoor wedding of a devout couple could take place versus the prayers of a backslidden farmer for much needed precipitation (without hail)? Are decisions made by majority request? Wouldn’t that be excessively dangerous, given humanity’s track record of deciding what is good for itself?

The drought is a serious concern, and I do not mean to suggest otherwise or make light of the situation. What concerns me is the human tendency to look for a divine bailout. Many politicians of certain persuasion (usually the greenback kind) tell us that the climate is just fine. Our greenhouse gasses are not unduly affecting it. Now that a drought is upon us—and even a child can understand that all weather is related—the focus shifts to God. This dancing around the elephant in the room is tiring and dizzying. We can spend billions of dollars making bombers that are almost invisible to radar and so oddly shaped that they get reported as UFOs and yet we can’t get politicians to consider our impact on the very skies they fly in on their bombing missions. The atmosphere is larger than us all and it is warming up. And when we bake ourselves out of existence isn’t it a comforting thought that seedtime and harvest will continue, at least until our sun burns out?

Holy Grand Central

Staring out over 42nd Street is the massive triumvirate of Mercury, Minerva, and Hercules. Once the largest group sculpture in the world, the famous facade of Grand Central Terminal is photographed daily, and the number of tourists thronging the concourse make it perhaps the sixth most visited tourist destination in the world. While visitors’ shutters clatter away, photographing the statuary and starred ceiling, I wonder how many stop to consider the religious nature of much of this New York City icon. Mercury, of legendary speed, seems an appropriate mascot for a transportation hub. Along with the remainder of the Greco-Roman gods, however, he has been pigeon-holed as “mythology” and is considered a quaint, if picturesque, archaism. How easily we forget that the religions of the classical world were serious attempts to make sense of their universe. Mercury was borrowed from Hermes, a god who had the task of being a psychopomp—a guide to the underworld. (Somehow very appropriate for the immense subterranean world of Grand Central.) In our monotheistic supersessionism, we recast other faiths as myths, forgetting their gravity.

Over on the east side the terminal passageway leads through the Graybar Building onto Lexington Avenue. The external friezes are of art deco vintage and show what appear to be angels flanking two of the entrances. My limited architectural knowledge prevents me from finding an actual description of what the figures represent, but it is safe to say the wings upon the back generally qualify a character as somewhat more than human. Graybar eventually became Western Electric and the original company is on the Fortune 500 list (again, I tread in unfamiliar and somewhat scary territory here). Angels watching over the common person? If so, perhaps we need to seek an upgrade. William Henry Vanderbilt, president of Central Railroad, once famously declared, “the public be damned,” in a moment of unexpected candor, showing where the common person stands in the Weltanschauung of the wealthy.

Back inside Grand Central, the famous celestial ceiling always draws considerable attention. Those who know the stars have noted that there is a backwards nature to the array—it does not match any actual outdoor sky. Explanations vary, but it is said to be a “God’s eye-view” of the stars. As we stand below, staring up, we gain a divine view on the celestial sphere. Many thousands of people pass through Grand Central every day. Few, I suspect, stop to consider its role as a monument to the influence religion has in the secular world. Certainly there was no religious motivation behind getting the working public to the city on time. We are the chattels of the wealthy, showing up to our jobs on time. As usual, we are unaware of the power of that which tends to carry on, unobserved. The mythologies of different peoples blend here, but perhaps the greatest myth of all is that the wealth from the gods will trickle down to the average human passing through this sacred edifice.

Thinking Zombies

Religion seldom makes as big an impression as when it concerns itself with the undead. Popular culture has gone after zombies to such a degree that they have engaged academic discourse well beyond the field of African-Caribbean religions. In fact, religious specialists tend to shy away from the topic in a kind of first-date embarrassment. Perhaps it’s because zombies in popular culture are so much cooler than their Vodou forebears. Within the past several months, however, zombies have shown up in Time, on the Center for Disease Control website, and now in the Chronicle of Higher Education. An article this week explores the academic implications of a paper by neuroscientists Bradley Voytek and Timothy Verstynen on the zombie brain. The two took on the project as a lark at the behest of the Zombie Research Society. Science fiction writer and head of ZRS, Matt Mogk gave an interesting take on zombies. He’s quoted in the Chronicle as saying, “Zombies are rooted in science, not superstition and myth.”

At the risk of sounding extremely uncool (one that I take rather frequently, I fear), I would point out that exactly the opposite is the case. Zombies are rooted in superstition and myth, i.e., religion. The entire idea that a person can be made to rise from the dead—originally to be made a slave—comes from that heady blend of Christianity and African religion that developed as part of slave culture. Slavers were notorious in not wanting slaves to accept Christianity because that might make slaves think that they were equal with their owners. By suppressing Christianity among slaves, the African religions in which many were raised came to blend with the Christianity that they’d garnered. One of the bi-products was the zombie. The zombie partakes of the Christian concept of resurrection, but in a twisted way. Once the new vision of the zombie presented by George Romero took off, yes, they did move into the realm of science fiction, often the forerunner of science.

A very serious issue underlies the zombie myth—the very religious concern about death. While not all religions comfort with an afterlife, they all in some way deal with ultimate issues. The end of life is about as ultimate, from our limited experience, as they come. Science loudly and repeatedly insists that death is the final frontier. We don’t cross back this way again, according to the available evidence. Scientists do not study ghosts or souls, and are very cagey about near-death experiences. The zombie, who is now threatening the careers of young scientists, is a most religious monster. Everything about the zombie points to its origin as a religious trope. Voytek and Verstynen wanted to interest people in science by taking a comic look at zombie brains. The problem is that zombie brains are brains on religion, not science.

Liberating Science

The fact that prominent scientists occasionally take time from their busy schedules to fire off a broadside against religion and religious believers freely bare their fangs at science shows that we need some efforts at reconciliation. I am reminded of schoolyard bullies when specialists in either realm make claims of exclusivity. Religion and science are both here to stay, and they’d better learn to get along. I just finished reading the remarkable little book The Sacred Depths of Nature by biologist Ursula Goodenough. While declaring herself a non-theist, Goodenough, the child of a Methodist minister, preserves a profound respect for the sacred in a concept she calls “religious naturalism.” Her brief book, which a colleague compared to a daily devotional, contains more good sense than all the enraged professionals bellowing at each other from either side of an unbreechable gulf. Uncompromising in her science, Goodenough is not suspicious of the human religious impulse, but embraces it in the expressions of nature. It is an approach I found liberating and amazingly conciliatory. It lacks the territoriality of Stephen Jay Gould’s Non-Overlapping Magisteria (NOMA) and preserves the integrity of the human person in all its complexity.

The day I finished the book the headlines of the paper announced the premature death of Sally Ride, another woman who moved science in the right direction. Ride’s sister is a Presbyterian minister, while Ride herself was a physicist as well as the first American woman in space. Aboard the space shuttle Challenger, she made history also as the youngest American in space. Typical of the imperialist national attitude that unfortunately still reigns supreme, space had been tacitly declared a man’s world. Sally Ride shattered that glass ceiling at 17,500 miles per hour. Even so, change seems to have decelerated once again to far below sub-orbital speed. Religion is partly to blame. A deep component in our culture, religions in the western world have traditionally asserted male superiority. Even those who claim God to be sexless can’t really conceive of a big person without some gender. The day after her death and the headlines had shifted from mourning to astonishment that she was gay.

The loss of Sally Ride is a loss to science, for she was in the heaven formerly occupied by God, showing women the way. I am, however, comforted by the efforts of Ursula Goodenough to keep the dialogue open. Too often, it seems, that conflict is the cost of disagreement. One of the observations of astronauts is that long periods confined with the same small coterie of people lead to inevitable disagreements. The question facing us all—for our planet is not so large after all—is how we will choose to deal with differing worldviews. It was declared that science would eventually bury religion, once reason had taken hold and superstition had run its course. Although the grave was dug, it has never been filled. Maybe we should all read the sensible approach of Goodenough and just be glad that we’ve all had a chance to be here at all. And remember Sally Ride as a fearless explorer, a hero rather than a spectacle.

Preachers and Pirates

One of the more colorful characters, albeit briefly mentioned, in Jon Butler’s New World Faiths, is Rev. Henry Loveall. While not a major historical figure in any sense of the word, and as a man who is known without the benefit of his own account of himself, the little we know of him intrigues. According to Butler, Loveall was dismissed as pastor from the Baptist church in Piscataway, New Jersey (a town in which I once worked) on charges of bigamy, prompting the Philadelphia Baptist Association to note he’d chosen an appropriate name for himself. Genealogical records online indicate that his given name was Desolate Baker and that he was born in Cambridge, England. As a youth he found himself in trouble for immorality with a woman at his church and he moved to America. Records are sketchy, but he apparently moved from Rhode Island to New Jersey to Maryland to Virginia. He had married but had gone to Virginia with another man’s wife. Even the usually forgiving genealogical records indicate some suspicion of his character.

Loveall lived in the eighteenth century when the world was still large enough to hide in. While I’m not the one to be impressed with Disney’s attempts at profundity in the Pirates of the Caribbean series of movies, there is one parsimonious line from At World’s End where Barbossa and Sparrow are discussing the incursion of business interests (in a delightful irony for a Disney film) into the free-spirited world of piracy. Barbossa avers that the world is smaller, but Jack Sparrow retorts that it’s not a smaller world after all, but “there’s just less in it.” Our world has been rapidly reduced to the pixels we can see on the screen in front of us. Bloggers are acclaimed as experts while those who’ve gazed across the war-torn promised land from atop the Mount of Olives with its frenetic network of churches start to doubt what their own eyes have revealed to them. We are content to let the Lovealls and Sparrows live it for us.

Our names are seldom a matter of choice. Like being born, they are factors in the midst of which we find ourselves—someone else supposed that we might turn out like this. The names we would select for ourselves show the size of our inner worlds. To love all is a noble sentiment. A sparrow is nervous, flighty, and has but a small brain. Our inner worlds are partially constructed by our religions. Declaring on divine authority what we must and mustn’t do, we find ourselves born into religions like we’re born into names. Few question the faith tradition fed to them by parents with such certainty, and that religion, just as surely as our name, becomes an integral part of our identity. History tell us little of Henry Loveall, a man who changed his name, and a clergyman who lived religion on his own terms.


Nouveau Riche

Among the vibrant areas of interest for scholars of religion is the emergence of new religions. Unlike the religions of antiquity, New Religious Movements provide a direct view, occasionally in “real time,” of what constitutes religious belief. The possibility of sitting Jesus, or even Paul, down for an interview remains vastly remote. The same is true of Ellen White or Joseph Smith, but here we have many historical records upon which to draw and a clearer context against which such religions might be read. Supposing the religious urge is something people of antiquity felt, we can get a sense of what might have satisfied that itch, at least in an oblique way, by looking at the modern period. As a student of religion I was mired in the ancient period. Learning obscure, dead languages, I supposed, would lead me back to the earliest forms of religious belief, therefore the most authentic. Like many of my colleagues, I came to discover that the origins quickly disappear into the distorted view our poorly ground telescope into the past reveals. As one writer recently suggested, if humanity evolved in Africa, so did religion.

This past week I read Jon Butler’s New World Faiths: Religion in Colonial America. Growing up I always felt that our own history was too young to be interesting. As I learned more about the horrid treatment of Native Americans, my sense of newness was accompanied by a sense of collective guilt. I like to think I wouldn’t displace a population in hopes of getting wealth, but as Butler demonstrates, the colonial experiment from the beginning was a profoundly religious one. We all know the pilgrims were dissenters from the established Church of England. Butler takes time to pause and consider the unwritten religions of those subjugated to European rule and sometimes extermination. How many of the first to brave the Atlantic crossing did so with missionary zeal, convinced of the superiority of a Christian culture. Not incidentally, they noticed great wealth could be had in this new land. Slaves would be needed to extract it and the Bible seems a slave-friendly document.

Butler’s little book is a good guide to the larger issues. The religion of African slaves grew into something to be feared. Colonial religion split along hairline fractures of doctrine, leading to the fascinating multiplicity of religions we now have in this country. Then, in his discussion of the early Presbyterians of Philadelphia, I ran across a sentence with immense explanatory value: “At the same time, congregations found that they could exercise their own power over clergyman through controlling their ministers’ salaries.” Conviction quickly falls by the wayside with a God whose arm is too short to save. The paycheck is something you can take to the bank. Religions develop into something different once gold enters the equation. I have watched the birth of empires with megachurches and televangelists in my own lifetime. I know that we are witnessing the birth of yet another human scheme to acquire eternity in the form of liquid assets.

Diggers, Ranters, and Muggles

Great Britain, despite its relative secularity today, has historically been the Petri dish in which many religions have been cultured. A large part of this phenomenon derives, I suspect, from the relative indecision during a crucial period of what the official religion should be. It is quite possible for a state to dictate a religion, and historically religions have often served the purposes of the state. Governments support the religion that serves them best. Beginning with Henry VIII, however, Britain had a difficult time making up its royal mind. The Church (in Rome) had decreed divorce immoral, and the interests of patriarchy run deep in some men’s souls. In the flip-flopping between Protestant and Catholic that took place, many new groups emerged from the froth. The True Levellers, popularly known as “Diggers,” were one such group. Taking the book of Acts literally, they believed true Christians should have everything in common. They formed farming communities (digging the soil) to support themselves as dissenters. As with most utopian communities, however, this kind of radical sharing just didn’t last. After only two years the Diggers had disbanded.

Around the same time another sect known as the Ranters abounded. The Ranters, early rivals to the Quakers, held ideas well beyond the simple communism of the Diggers. Pantheists in an age of omnipotence, they didn’t really stand a chance of survival. They didn’t trust the authority of the church, and being Christians, as well as pantheists, they urged their English compatriots to listen to the Jesus inside instead of the one proclaimed in a limited way by the church and the Bible. Their antinomianism led to the perception that they were a threat to the social order. Interestingly, there seems to be evidence that the movement was somewhat widespread in the seventeenth century. Eventually they disappeared, absorbed into the Quaker movement or simply losing their cohesiveness by dint of their native antipathy to order.

Mr. Muggleton, I presume

One of those influenced by the teaching of the Ranters was Lodowicke Muggleton. Technically a tailor, Muggleton is remembered as a religious thinker (a rarity in itself) largely because of his writings and Muggletonianism, which he founded (and which lasted until 1979). Apart from the Ranters, he also rejected the Quakers. Muggleton believed only in that which could be physically embodied, denying many aspects of an early modern world still alive with miracles and superstition. Even angels were beings of pure reason. Tracing the origins of fictional concepts may be a fool’s errand—and if so I am well qualified—but I wonder if J. K. Rowling’s “Muggles” derive from the name of this former Ranter who came to see life as having no magic. Muggleton’s world had no place for witches, magic, or divine intervention, yet it was profoundly religious. Once religion enters the public domain, it is sculpted to the satisfaction of individuals in search of their own meaning. Some of those searchers will be Muggles and others will be Ranters and a few may remain Diggers. Without any of them, the fabric begins to unravel.

Another Dark Knight

Batman was dreamed up in the late 1930s as an ambiguous character that fought crime and protected innocent civilians. The backstory emerged that he had witnessed his parents being shot down as a child, and eventually adopted the identity of a bat to frighten the perps. Batman never, in principle, used guns. Of course, the DC Comics character eventually scored a wonderfully campy television series that entertained many of us as children. It even spawned a movie. Then, fifty years after the original, Tim Burton gave us a darker, more serious Batman. The series of promising movies degenerated into the unforgivable Batman and Robin, and many assumed the flash in the pan was over. We didn’t need any super heroes. Christopher Nolan resurrected this bat in Batman Begins, and when I first saw The Dark Knight I was stunned. Good and evil danced a waltz so delicate that you were never sure who was leading. The frisson was palpable.

Thursday night the Nolan series’ final episode was released. I’ve not seen it yet, but from the moment I step out of the Port Authority Bus Terminal in Times Square until I arrive at work, I will have seen several multi-story Batmen looking down on the real life Gotham, explosions erupting and everyone wondering if Batman will survive this film. Yesterday morning the news opened with a horrifying story from real life in Aurora, Colorado. A gunman opened fire on a crowd of opening night movie viewers, killing at least twelve. Several children were shot. The gunman, like a real-life character from Arkham, was apprehended and claimed to have explosives in his house. I stared at the story and wondered what has become of humanity.

Facebook has turned into a venue for flying political banners. I’m always surprised to see how conservative people I knew in school have become—in those days no one had me beat for non-progressive thought. I’m truly amazed, at times, by the glorification of America’s gun culture that accompanies conservative causes. People want to shoot and want to glorify their right to shoot. I have, on rare occasions, shot rifles for sport—only at targets and only when others have asked me to. There is no denying the rush of power one feels, knowing that, like God, you can destroy the thing far distant from you with just a squeeze of the finger. I’m not sure I’m happy in a universe populated by such gods. I grew up a conservative, but also a pacifist. I grew up watching Batman defeat evil so clearly defined that no room remained for ambiguity. Yes, I grew up a conservative, but then I just grew up. I will watch The Dark Knight Rises and will not know what to expect.

Neither good nor bad.

Explanatory Value

The dividing line between superstition and religion is thin and growing more effaced all the time. Nowhere does this become clearer than in studies of the history of religion. One of the critiques early made between “true religion” and superstition is that the latter involved magic, but today anthropologists find that line difficult to discern as well. Many religions are defined by their insistence on supernatural occurrences. The world as is, is by definition, secular. That’s one of the reasons Euan Cameron’s Enchanted Europe: Superstition, Reason, and Religion, 1250—1750 is so interesting. Cameron, an historian with a precise grasp on theological nuance, traces Christian responses to the world of the supernatural through the Middle Ages. Various theological responses are then explored as the author searches for that elusive distinction that makes one belief religious and another superstitious. It is really a matter of perspective.

Nowhere is this clearer than in the late Middle Ages. As Cameron notes, physics, to the mind attuned to God’s direct intervention in the cosmos, looks like the occult. How could a person seriously believe that two physical bodies, such as the sun and earth, or earth and moon, could attract each other? If you put God back into the equation just to take him out for an instant, this sounds extremely occult. Does not attraction imply volition? How can physical objects attract one another? Thus scientists such as Galileo and Newton often found opposition for their ideas based on the fact that science and superstition can also bear a passing resemblance.

As science’s superior empirical evidence became clearer, the God who’d stepped out of the room temporarily was eventually locked out. This vast universe could be explained without the supernatural at all. What was needed was better glasses. Microscopes and telescopes, and now cyclotrons and space telescopes, provide a consistent and ever sharper image of a universe that gets along just fine without the divine. But what of superstition? Has it gone away? We still routinely construct buildings without thirteenth floors. The sigh of relief from the worker or guest on floor fourteen seems never to be obviated by the fact that they are really on a renamed, empirically thirteenth floor. Your daily newspaper (although quickly growing extinct) will still offer you your horoscope before you hurry off to the lab. Call it what you will—superstition, religion, occult, magic—as long as we’re human no scientist or theologian will ever convince us that there’s not at least some whisper of a ghost in the machine.

Leggo My Congo

When I first saw the trailer for Congo, back in 1995, I was a new father and my interest in talking apes understandably took a back seat. While the movie sat back there like a quiet child, it was slowly forgotten. Something prompted my memory over the weekend, so I finally watched it. Now, I had plenty of time to read the negative reviews, but I have a soft spot for both talking apes and bad movies. The really fascinating aspect of Congo, however, was the fantastic liberties it takes with the ancient world, particularly the kingdom of Solomon. Solomon has been under investigation over the past few decades. Archaeologists have not found evidence of the biblical opulence concerning both his wealth and fame. It seems likely that he was an actual king, but the king of a small nation that did not have quite the pull that later tradition granted to it. Still, Solomon has become a cultural trope for great wealth and splendor, and if a movie-maker wants an easy frame of reference, well, some people will recognize old Sol. Those who do recognize Solomon probably won’t have a ready inventory of his assets to interrupt their enjoyment (that presumes a lot) of the movie.

The motive factor that brings our unlikely traveling companions together in Congo, are the fabricatedly mythical diamond mines of King Solomon, located in the Congo. A self-styled archaeologist and professional con-man from Romania assists to finance a flight to Africa to help return a homesick gorilla (Amy) who also, by the way, talks. The only realistic aspect of the heroes is that the university professors are the ones who are completely broke and have to rely on corporate funding to get their monkey off their back (well, actually she’s an ape). And then there is the huge communications giant (TraviCom) that needs the diamonds for their communications equipment. And a bunch of Africans who just want to stay alive (most don’t succeed). Solomon was never really associated with diamonds in the Bible. His wealth is described in terms of gold, silver, bronze, peacocks, and suprizingly, apes. Why and how he would have managed a mine in central Africa when even the Egyptians didn’t travel there is never explained.

Well, I shouldn’t be so hasty about the Egyptians. Our Romanian con-man is also able to translate Egyptian heiroglyphics, liberally scribbled on the walls of the fortress surrounding Solomon’s mine. These preserve the story of the “myth of the killing apes” that generated an honest-to-god guffaw from my cynical self. New mythology and corny characters aside, the movie didn’t fail to reach me. I’m always a sucker for talking apes and under-funded education, both of which represent a kind of extinction. If Solomon really had a reach all the way to the Congo, and if he extracted the huge diamonds the movie showed scattered around on the surface of the ground and if universities could actually get media attention for causes other than the shortcomings of their football programs, there could be cause for hope. In what is a bit of probably unintended social commentary, after the mine is destroyed in a volcanic eruption, only one diamond remains. And that diamond benefits neither the single surviving African nor the underfunded university professor. It becomes a weapon in the hands of a large, private corporation.

Your Brain on Plastic

“Cogito ergo sum,” Descartes famously, and apparently erroneously, wrote. As technology races wildly ahead, those of us of biological origin are left feeling somewhat insignificant. An article in Monday’s Chronicle of Higher Education on “The Strange Neuroscience of Immortality” touches on many of the issues that are the very pulse of religion. Revolving around the theory of Dr. Ken Hayworth that a preserved brain, sealed in plastic instants before death, may in the future be thoroughly mapped and resurrected, Evan R. Goldstein explores the idea of immortality. Hayworth’s belief is that a thoroughly mapped brain, reconstructed artificially, would be the ego of cogito. The self. Despite all our advances in science, we don’t know what it is.

As Goldstein makes clear in his article, this transfer of consciousness and possibility of immortality is not mainstream science. In fact, most scientists rapidly distance themselves from it. Many cite the unscientific nature of the very enterprise, but I wonder if it might not have a more religious basis. Immortality is the ultimate of religious ideals. Christians generally recognize it as resurrection, and other monotheistic traditions offer a heaven after death (sometimes, to some people). Is that not all at stake here? If we manage to assure some kind of human immortality, have we not just robbed ourselves of heaven? Quite apart from the technological hurdles and uncertainties about what the self/mind/soul is, is not immortality what separates gods from humans?

The problem with gods is that they don’t get to go home at the end of the day. Would Heaven be so great if you just left another tough day in the universe full of sadness, violence, and pain? Hayworth suggests that a reconstructed brain placed in a mechanical body (robotic, probably) would have the potential of lasting forever. It will, however, be expensive. That means that only the very wealthy will be able to afford the procedure, if it ever works. Imagine that world: a planet full of immortal, wealthy entrepreneurs who can spend eons without sleep, trying to acquire yet more for themselves while knocking the competition on its metal rump. It really doesn’t sound like Heaven to me. But then, what would I know? To me cogito sounds like a snack food.

Like Clockwork

It is probably safe now to reveal something that occurred at Grove City College over a quarter of a century ago. I often feel I must justify my choice of college, but I was a first-generation college student who knew nothing about higher education. I was raised with a Fundamentalist orientation, Grove City was a “Christian college,” and it was only about 30 miles from home. I do give Grove City credit for shaking me out of my Fundie way of thinking; as a religion major I met some genuine honest thinkers in the department who let me question the inconsistencies of Fundamentalist beliefs. I broke free in my own time. One of the literature professors, however, insisted that we both read and watch the movie version of A Clockwork Orange. It was my senior year and I felt ready to handle it. As I watched the movie again over the weekend, the first time since college, I was shocked that the institution Grove City College has become would have ever allowed such a movie to be shown. Although there is Kubrickian nudity, the movie was initially given its rating because of the violence, which, by today’s standards, is somewhat tame.

Anthony Burgess’ book is so well known that I don’t need to summarize the story here. What struck me in a new way was the religious element in the plot. While Alex is in prison, and wanting to be reformed, it is the prison chaplain who advises him against it. Undergoing the famous movie treatment, Alex indeed proves docile after testing, leading the priest to declare, “He has no real choice, has he? Self-interest, fear of physical pain, drove him to that grotesque act of self-abasement. Its insincerity was clearly to be seen. He ceases to be a wrongdoer. He ceases also to be a creature capable of moral choice.” Of course, the government is satisfied with this kind of morality, the sort that upholds appearances at any price to humanity.

What I find particularly disturbing is Burgess’ prescience. A Clockwork Orange was published fifty years ago, and since that time we have seen politics shift from care of the citizen to the ultimate window dressing of courting the Moral Majority to make it look as if all governmental decisions are moral. The Tea Party seeks to underscore that charade, claiming that all who would argue for Alex’s humanity deserve the fate that he so wrongfully dispensed before his “reform.” This view of the world suffers for its lack of complexity. Humans do not come in black and white. Ironically, Burgess chose to make the clergyman the only the objector to the inhuman treatment imposed on Alex. This is the kind of dilemma on which Stanley Kubrick thrived, but it has become even more poignant in the decades since his movie was released. True, Kubrick’s film is based on the apocopated American version of the novel, perhaps obscuring the intended meaning of Burgess. But isn’t that exactly what he was attempting to do?