Bretz v. Noah

Until I met my wife I’d never been west of the Mississippi. Or even Ohio for that matter. Together we’ve traveled, in a fashion broken by years, from coast-to-coast and even overseas. Nothing in my life had prepared me for seeing the American West. No, I’ve not seen cowboys, but the landforms are so different from the weathered, ancient Appalachians among which I grew up. Eastern Washington is a fascinating landscape and with my occasional flirting with geology, I recently read John Soennichsen’s Bretz’s Flood: The Remarkable Story of a Rebel Geologist and the World’s Greatest Flood. Within the last couple of years I’d read about Glacial Lake Missoula, a juggernaut of an ice age lake that had flooded parts of Idaho and Washington thousands of years ago when its ice dam gave way. J Harlen Bretz was a turn-of-the-(previous)-century geologist who defied convention and insisted that the evidence of eastern Washington proved that a massive flood washed over the area, giving distinct shape to the region that empties into the Columbia River basin. For much of his career he was ridiculed by other geologists. The reason? The Bible.

Geology was the science that gave Darwin the idea for his evolutionary theory. The factor that had been missing from science, before geology, was time. The 6000-year-old earth just wasn’t old enough to account for the slow changes required for one species to morph into another. As scientists came to realize that billions of years were available, it became clear that change occurred even more slowly than the GOP is happy with. For geologists, anything that happened quickly was anathema. As Bretz’s Flood makes clear, a sudden flood sounded far too much like old Noah to be science. Catastrophism had been cleanly rejected by geologists because even if the evidence supported it, it looked like a return to mythology and superstition. Interestingly Bretz began his academic life among the Methodists of Albion College, and continued to quote the Bible to his last days. He was, however, an atheist.

The Bible has shaped our culture more thoroughly than Noah’s putative flood has shaped geology. I’ve read many geological studies over the years and any that are written for non-specialists never mention great floods without at least a nod to Noah. In fact, as Soennichsen points out, Bretz has ironically become a hero of Creationists who see the Missoula flood as Noah’s event. A large portion of Bretz’s career, however, was dogged by geologists duty-bound to deny a sudden flood just because the Bible tells us so. Sudden events are smeared with the residue of the divine.

J Harlen Bretz is hardly a household name, but his career is a microcosm of American culture. Glacial Lake Missoula did exist, as geologists now accept, and long before Noah was a twinkle in Moses’ eye. When the dam burst, the fable did fall, and down came the ark, Noah and all.

Watch, and Pray

Religion is a lucrative business. There is likely a deep, evolutionary urge for fair play nestled somewhere in primate DNA. Monkeys and apes seem concerned about it, and certainly nothing gets people more upset than a cheater who does prosper (unless he, less often she, is the protagonist of some gangster movie). Most of us work pretty hard to make a living, often doing tasks that push us beyond our comfort range in order to ensure some kind of success. The same is true of clergy. Yes, stories of lazy or lackadaisical ministers abound, but many work long hours under often stressful conditions. Most are not paid very well. Their eyes, according to unwritten writ, are turned toward a larger prize. In an economy that has become a nearly universal capitalism, everything has a price. People want to feel that they are pleasing God but there are oh so many rules and regulations! The Hebrew Bible alone has 613, and then add the Christian Scriptures and two millennia of ecclesiological dogmatism and you’ve got one hefty bill. We don’t mind paying a bit of that for a religious specialist to take care of the details while we get on with the real business of life.

Now add a little math. How many people does it take to add up to a small fortune? Already by the Middle Ages the Catholic Church, really the only show in town across Europe, had amassed a real treasury. Although individually the clergy could claim to own nothing, collectively they were flush. Even today the wealth (and therefore power) of the Vatican is nearly beyond comprehension. A colleague recently pointed me to a story I had missed back in April. This involved the computer age and lucre in an unexpected place. Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill I was photographed sitting at a high-gloss table, wearing a Breguet watch valued at $30,000. There was an outcry. The Russian Church, long under the pressure of a communist state, could hardly be described as opulent. Well, liturgical vestments and accouterments are expected to be costly, but personal items such as watches, are expected to be modest. Thirty-thousand dollars is a lot of money to be reminded of when to show up for mass.

In response, some church leaders turned to technology for a solution. The watch was Photoshopped out of the picture and, as if a miracle, the scandal disappeared! Except they forgot the glossy tabletop—the reflection of the watch, like Dorian Gray’s portrait, remained as evidence. (The story may be found here, along with the damning photos, if you can stand the snarky writing.) Owning such a watch may be considered bad form among the humble clergy, hiding it, however, is even worse. I don’t mean to single out Patriarch Kirill—the Russians have had a pretty rough go of it, what with Stalin and Reagan and all—but religions seldom like to have their coffers examined. The laity will pay handsomely to avoid the extra work salvation demands. Herein lies the rub: salvation has become less tangible as material wealth has expanded. Many people have mistaken one for the other. It’s just that they don’t want to get caught enjoying a little too much of the one at the expense of the other.

Now watch this, for time is fleeting

Guide Me, O Thou Great

You are an apostate, or worse. Unless, that is, you belong to the relatively select religion known as Jehovah’s Witnesses. Having grown up in a town bereft of Witnesses, my first exposure came as the result of an American Religions course. Grove City, Pennsylvania was not an ideal locale to experience religious diversity, outside the Protestant Neapolitan flavor. When we had to visit a religious service outside that milieu, I joined some classmates for a trip to the local Kingdom Hall. There are few situations as uncomfortable as watching other people being religious. It is so intimate. When Watchtower study began, my classmates and I, good Christians all, were shocked to hear even a young child answer one of the questions put by the leader with “the Christian apostates!” She was quite enthusiastic. If you were not a Witness you were an apostate.

Since that time, Witnesses have been no strangers to my door, so I read Andrew Holden’s Jehovah’s Witnesses: Portrait of a Contemporary Religious Movement (Routledge, 2002) with interest. Holden is a sociologist who undertakes an analysis of the ascetic, millenarian group in a conflicted situation. Modern society proves quite difficult to reconcile with Witnesses’ authoritarian biblical literalism. The assertion, now quietly overlooked, that the world did not end on cue has proved an embarrassment more than once. Most recently Armageddon was scheduled for a 1975 time slot, but this stubborn, old world just keeps limping along. In many ways, it is a sad tale. Witnesses advocate clean living and fair dealing, but if you’re not part of the club you are a danger to those who are. Non-monastic, they nevertheless shut themselves off from much that the world has to offer.

Holden’s study is a model of fair-minded analysis. He is not out to humiliate or insult the Witnesses or their lifestyle. He remains true to the evidence (but not the doctrine) and offers a rare, objective look at a New Religious Movement. Distinguished as one of the few religions to have started in Pittsburgh (the city that also gave us the cinematic zombie), Witnesses are now a six-million strong, worldwide religion. While Holden gives only a cursory glimpse of their doctrine, he does offer a rare view into an exclusive faith struggling for the end of a pluralistic world. It is a study well worth reading. Especially for an apostate.

Shopping for Fear

So I decided to visit a Halloween store. These have been showing up with metronomic regularity in September for several years now and are usually good for a cheap thrill. My personal preference for Halloween is more somber than garish, but the affirmation that other people enjoy a safe scare has a way of drawing me in. Those who read this blog on a regular basis know that I frequently point out commonalities between fear and religion. They both seem to hover around the same orbit in the brain, and, in some accidentals are very similar. Horror films therefore often indulge in religious imagery, and monsters do not infrequently partake of the divine. So it is no surprise to see my thesis borne out in shops intending to capitalize on fear.

I will freely admit that there may be cultural references that I’m missing here. A movie that I’ve neglected, or some television show or graphic novel may be informing some of the images in ways I can’t comprehend. Nevertheless, we all know of the power of the crucifix when it comes to vampires. I wasn’t aware that the cross had horrific effects on other species of monsters as well. Take this guy here. I’m not sure what he’s supposed to be—perhaps a zombie? It seems a little too corporeal to be a demon. The teeth just don’t look right for a vampire. In any case, he seems to have an extreme reaction to religion, with the cross melting right into his skull. Is there a conversion message hidden here somewhere? Of course it could be just a chinzy attempt to scare a real religiophobe. The cross has become the backup weapon against all supernatural evil.

The use of a grim-reaperish ghoul rising from the grave to illustrate The Rapture was a new one on me. Last I heard only the squeaky clean and friends of the Tea Party got to go on the Rapture. (Well, the latter category might explain it.) The idea of the Rapture, as it was fabricated late in the nineteenth century, involved the chance for all the good Christians to escape before things really got rough down here for us normal folk. I would’ve thought that scary guys like this joining the heavenly crusade might take a little bit of the joy out of the occasion. Or maybe they’re being left here to haunt the rest of us. In either case it is clear that consumers respond to religious sounding language and symbolism when looking for a scare. Obviously there is plenty in the store with no religious significance at all, but finding hints of religion scattered in with the plastic scares does show a kind of Frankenstein’s monster of human sentiments and emotions. It’s only appropriate when the nights are now longer than the days.

Deadly Morass

Swamplandia! is a novel ensconced in the reality of death. It is one of those books that I knew I would need to read as soon as I heard about it.  Alligator wrestlers, ghosts, and even a biblical-sounding Leviathan theme park based on hellish imagery create an eerie, almost supernatural feel to the narrative.  At the same time, it is a very human story of loss, assimilation, growing up, and more loss that might be gain.  I’ve read many novels where the characters and events faded relatively rapidly after I closed the back cover.  The cast of Karen Russell’s Swamplandia! has stayed with me, wraith-like, for several days.  As I’ve tried to work out why the story sticks so close at hand, and I think it may be because so many of the characters—the entire protagonistic family—are outsiders.  The loss of the mother spirals a carefree, largely off-the-grid family in a Floridian swamp into a forced confrontation with the mainland.  In these times of economic hardship, the loss of a dream is something too many people can understand.  I certainly can.
 
Death, in whatever form it may appear, is a religious issue because it deals with ultimates.  Paul Tillich, a theologian of the last century, famously declared that God was that on which a person staked their ultimate concern.  For many people today, by this rough definition, death has become a kind of god.  In the ancient world s/he was literally so. Of course, death is entirely natural.  Consciousness is the factor that makes it seem foreboding and dreary.  Swamplandia! deftly ties death and love, hope, and a kind of diminished redemption together in a tale where a young girl travels through an unlikely underworld to rescue a sister who saved her own life by her doubt.  It may not be the most profound novel, but it is certainly a moody one.
 
On my campus visits I’m increasingly hearing that novels are favored by some instructors to get at deep truths that textbooks miss.  Indeed, the analytical urge is strong, but not omnipotent.  Sometimes the truth can best be experienced by letting yourself go and just feeling what is happening rather than thinking it through.  Swamplandia! does a bit of that. Thinking back over my own long, academic tenure, I realize that the teachers I enjoyed most were those who had me read what were, at the time, unexpected things. In a world where education has become nothing but job training to produce satisfied cogs in the corporate machine, death as a character in our own stories can’t be far from the truth. Sometimes even alligators and ghosts aren’t the scariest features of our non-fictional landscape.

The King’s Bible

Thumbing through last week’s Time, I found a Bible. Actually, stories of religious interest appear frequently in Time, but this was one of those small blurbs of human interest. It appears that Elvis Presley’s Bible just sold for $94,600 in the UK. Of course, Elvis was known for his gospel recordings as well as his formative role in rock-n-roll. A boy from the south in those days would have known his Bible. What struck me as worthy of comment is the reason the artifact was priced so high—not because it is a religious book, or the putatively divine content, but because of who once owned it. The Bible is a common enough item—billions have been printed—and in our world of value based on rarity, it is hardly a specialty item. In fact, they are often given away.

We have all felt the draw of fame now and again. We wonder what the lives of the rich and famous are like. Sotheby’s and Christie’s thrive on people wanting to possess articles from their deceased heroes. Studies have been conducted to demonstrate just how much laundering devalues clothes worn by both the famous (bad) and infamous (good). In the case of a Bible, perhaps one is put in touch with the spiritual residue of the owner. According to Time, Presley scribbled many notes in his Bible. Perhaps there is some eternal message there? A message untainted by years of study. A message from Graceland.

The King (of kings?)

Elvis Presley was not acclaimed for his great intellect. He had a singing voice and swinging hips that changed an entire culture, but his was not the world of the library and study. Naturally it is the more flamboyant that capture the imagination of the largest numbers. I can imagine the (a) Bible of Rudolf Bultmann, Charles Briggs, or William F. Albright on the auction block. There would be a flurry among some scholars, for sure, perhaps to pool their money enough to make a bid some order of magnitude less than Presley’s sequined presence of the auction table demands. Probably it would not even be worth the effort of the auctioneer. After all, no matter what doggerel he might have scribbled in the margins, the King always outranks the mere pawns.

Longer Nights

Nothing accompanies the slow decent into winter like scary movies. Now that autumn is officially here, it is time to look for the religious motifs in frightening movies again. Perhaps it is time to join Netflicks, because when it comes to my own movies I have mainly choices among bargain basement films I’ve picked up over the years. Over the weekend I watched one of them. John Carpenter’s Prince of Darkness is the second of his apocalyptic-themed movies, following on the remarkably creepy The Thing. (This is one of the few remakes that manages to outdo the original in just about every way.) Prince of Darkness, however falters almost from the beginning. I do appreciate a movie that is straightforward about using religion as the source of fear, and one that even has a character who is a graduate student in theology! Apart from the priest and street people, all the ill-fated characters are academics—professors and grad students of theoretical physics, the sciences, and our one, lone theologian. The plot revolves, literally, around a swirling green liquid in a decrepit church, which is the Anti-Christ.

Although the trappings are all here for a truly frightening experience, Christianity doesn’t really lend itself to a frightening mythology. To get to something truly tremendous, Prince of Darkness posits a kind of gnostic anti-God who is the father of Satan. The persona is evil writ so large that it is simply not believable that a corroded screw-top jar is able to contain him. For anyone who’s studied history or anthropology, placing the date of the Ball Mason jar back seven million years ago sounds like random guesswork. Homo sapiens sapiens weren’t even around then, making one wonder why God thought of a jar to trap the viscous Anti-Christ millions of years before the “fall” necessitated a regular Christ. The Bible appears, in transmogrified form, as an ancient book of spells that when translated sound suspiciously like the good old King James.

The movie does have its creepy moments—abandoned churches are scary; even fully functional ones can be remarkably spooky at night. It is difficult to accept that a priest would go to a physics professor before consulting his bishop, but then we have to prevent this movie from becoming just a watered-down Exorcist flick. Having Alice Cooper appear as the leader of the homeless minions was a nice touch, in any case. Since we are all still here, the movie ends predictably enough, with Satan’s Dad being stopped before entering the world. It does, in a de rigueur metanarrative, involve a self-sacrifice, albeit not a virginal one. And for the surviving handful of academics, life goes on as normal the morning after. Perhaps evil was blown too large to be believable here. Enough human-sized diabolism exists to frighten any reasonable person. And autumn is only just starting.

Pipe Dreams

While I was off in Indiana, Jesus was coming down in New Jersey. Well, at least a graven image was. My wife saved the front page of Thursday’s New Jersey Star-Ledger that had a front-page, above the fold headline, “Workers give Jesus a much-needed lift.” The caption notes that in a gusty storm on Tuesday the 200-300 pound Jesus (this is America, after all) tumbled off his pedestal at Saint John’s School in Orange. A crane hoisting the fallen Lord dominates the first page. Clearly a bit of irony on a slow news day, the social commentary is thick indeed. Despite Magritte’s assertion, we still say the painting is a pipe. The representation is the object. This is the native logic behind the “idols” of old—to capture an image is to somehow to encompass some of the essence. This is precisely why the Hebrew Bible forbids images to be made.

I realize that “essence” is a disputed concept these days. Some scientists have declared that no such thing exists, along with souls, deities, and free will. Nevertheless, most mornings I wake up aware that I am me and not you, that my physical body is relatively near where I last remember it being, and that it faces the same hopes and limitations it did the day before and before and before. Perhaps this continuity is an illusion, but I can’t afford to treat it as such. It’s hard for an identity-less person to hold down a job. As usual, it is money that comes back to define us.

We recognize that it is disrespectful to mistreat representations of what we hold sacred. Does Jesus suffer any real harm for his image laid out on the ground? The nuance necessary to separate likeness from reality is something we obviously possess, but as we deal with the physical world the distinction frequently fades. Religion may have lost much of its explanatory value for the material world we inhabit, but images of a fallen savior demonstrate that we still operate otherwise. Much of our religious life concerns appearances. And for many people that step between appearances and reality is a very small step indeed.

Whirling Spirits

A photograph and video of a “fire tornado” in Australia have been lighting up the web the last few days. Well, technically there is no such thing as a fire tornado, although that term serves perfectly well as a colloquial expression for the phenomenon. Having spent several years studying vortices for a project on weather language in the Bible, I came to know tornados particularly intimately. Dust devils, caused by surface heating, look and act like tornados, but a true tornado is cloud-based. The fire tornado is probably better termed a “fire whirl” or a “fire devil”—an expression that has a particularly ominous tone. Such vortices occur in wildfires in other parts of the world as well, and they are, obviously, very dangerous. When my wife pointed out the comments on this site (which also has a photograph and a link to the video), however, the implications for a blog on religion became clear.

One of the points I made in my weather work was that severe weather is almost always attributed to God. The comments on boingboing affirm that the concept retains its currency. Now, reading comments on most websites reveals just how juvenile the web readership generally is. On many sites the comments are so annoying that even Spongebob Squarepants would seem an intellectual heavyweight by comparison with the writers. Nevertheless on boingboing, by comment seven God had been brought into the conversation. In this instance, reference was aptly made to the movie The Ten Commandments, with others chiming in that nature here far outdid Cecil B. DeMille’s efforts at a realistic fire devil to represent God. The comments then move on to the guiding of the Israelites by a pillar of fire in the wilderness. Intermingled with the biblical references are meteorological comments attempting to classify the whirl a bit more precisely.

When something out of the ordinary occurs, our default seems to be God. This in no way discounts the scientific discussion for what is really going on. The religion and science comments simply talk past one another—they have the same referent, but entirely different levels of engagement with it. Although not the scientific names, “devils” and “tornados” represent different, if visually similar, phenomena. Vortices seem natural on a round planet that follows a round orbit while rotating swiftly on its axis, and yet they remain comparatively rare. The name “dust devil” probably goes back to indigenous traditions associating the whirls with ghosts or spirits. For Christians encountering these concepts, heathen gods were devils (as is evident in the name Devil’s Lake, Wisconsin, named “Spirit Lake” by the Native Americans. The same applies to Devil’s Lake, North Dakota, but I haven’t been there.) It seems to me that these vortices neatly summarize religious sensibilities: an awe-inspiring event is one culture’s deity, another culture’s devil, and a third culture’s natural phenomenon empirically explained.

A real tornado

A Cougar’s Mother

While on a stroll between appointments at Indiana University in Bloomington, I came across a tree with flowers laid underneath and a memorial plaque at its base. I glimpsed the name Mellencamp, and for a fan of rock, it didn’t take much imagination to tie it to John Cougar. Indeed, the memorial is dedicated to his mother, an artist, who died earlier this year. I first came to know of Indiana University because of music. I married a musician who, like myself, had to sacrifice a career doing what she loved in order to “get by.” Although she hadn’t studied at Indiana, my wife knew the reputation of the campus well. At a sunny moment between appointments I sat outside one of the music buildings listening to students practice through the open windows and read about Marilyn Mellencamp. An article in a local paper explains that this week an exhibition of her art is on display in Bloomington. When I read the quote from Waldron Arts Center Gallery Director Julie Roberts that the arts “are viable ways to make a living and they are vital part of being a happy and alive person,” I felt a renewed sense of hope. There are others, it is clear, who see that the arts are called the humanities for a reason. In a culture where only money matters, there is no culture. Think about it.

Since the industrial revolution we’ve been told that the measure of a human is how much money they are able to make. Something profound has been lost since then as great universities cut programs for the arts and humanities while business departments build new facilities. Talk about gaining the world but losing your soul—business cattily replies, “I have no soul.” While John Mellencamp never rivaled the biggest bands for income, his work, particularly Scarecrow, is full of human empathy. I listened to that album over and over in 1985, recounting the farm crisis and the demise of those not driven by corporate greed. And looking at this maple tree I wonder when the last time was that someone honestly mourned the death of a corporate mogul.

It is the mark of a deeply schizophrenic society that we all aspire to what fails to inspire. Our economy is driven by the material—money—and not that which speaks profoundly to what it means to be a human being. We keep the arts alive because the wealthy require something worthwhile upon which to spend their lucre. Is not buying art buying part of another person’s soul? We can’t define souls materially, science must conclude they don’t exist, but every time you say, “I feel happy/fulfilled/satisfied” you belie the facts. Souls may not be material, and they may never be found in laboratories. They are nevertheless part of the human constitution, and I for one, would lay a flower under a tree and know that it is more than just fertilizer for the next growing commodity.

Dearly Beloved

Coptic Christians have been in the news recently. In a late push to be known as the radical orthodox, it seems, the Copts have arrested the headlines. Tensions in the Middle East appear to have shifted to this ancient group and the media finds itself fascinated by them. In an unrelated development, a Coptic papyrus fragment appears to mention Jesus’ wife, according to CNN’s Belief Blog. Naturally, people are curious (read “upset”) at this revelation, although it is not history, just tradition. For decades, perhaps centuries, scholars of Christianity have noted that Jewish guys Jesus’ age would have been, by all social expectations, married. Celibacy was not really an option in the first century of the common era, and yet, no one explicitly mentions Jesus’ wife. This causes a larger crisis for divinity, because once Jesus was recognized as divine what would you do with a wife? She would complicate things (or at least theology).

The female divine is certainly as ancient as the male divine, culturally speaking, if not older. Despite cartoons of Cro-Magnon man dragging Cro-Magnon woman by the hair, all indications are that early people revered the feminine mystique as life-givers. Naturally, this equates to a kind of divinity. Only when society grew to be dominated by politics, no matter how primitive, did the male usurp the role of life-giving image-of-god-bearer. The male part in procreation was upgraded to being the creator, and the female relegated to a mere receptacle. Male gods alone could create universes, and women were downgraded to incomplete men. Still, in the myths around Israel (and perhaps within Israel as well) gods were married. The divine principle included both genders, although in an unequal distribution of power.

Fast forward twenty centuries and we have movements that encourage young women to consider Jesus as a kind of chaste lover. That’s a little hard to do if he was married—issues of adultery, at least in fantasy land, cause a real complication. The fact of history is that we possess very little of Jesus’ biography. Depending on how we parcel out the Gospels, we know only about one year’s worth (or three very scant years) of his life. Many personal details are left out. The Bible is clear that he had brothers and sisters, and even some of their names are preserved. We know his parents and find out that he was a cousin of John the Baptist. The relationships likely continued from there into other connections, but they weren’t central to the story the Gospel-writers wanted to tell. Adding women always complicates a male religion. Only non-gendered religions can be truly universal.

So this newly translated Coptic fragment comes from centuries later when it would seem natural that any Jewish man of the time would have been married. What was his wife’s name? Here’s the beauty of the revelation: for that, we can still offer the consolation, “fill in the blank.”

Rounding up the usual suspects?

Edeniana

“On Jordan’s stormy banks I stand, and cast a wishful eye”—so begins a hymn I learned as a child and which has followed me to Bloomington, Indiana. Campus visits are an expectation of some academic editors, and as I stand and look at Jordan River on the Indiana University campus, I can’t help but feel a little disappointed. I have no idea if this little stream was named after the Jordan River of Israel fame, or if it just happens that someone named Jordan was a benefactor of the university. Given that there is a Jordan Hall, and a Jordan Street, the latter seems likely. Nevertheless, whether liquid or liquidity, any Jordan in contemporary society probably traces its origins back to the river that now separates Israel from Jordan (named after the river). Many hymns celebrate the mighty Jordan without the benefit of geographical experience. The mythic river is not mighty or majestic, but a slow-moving artery that sluggishly empties into the Dead Sea. With all the history of Christian imagination, however, we like to think of it on a par with the Euphrates, or at least the Mississippi.

Jordan’s stormy banks

Biblical images have a way of catching the imagination. Although many younger people have no training in the Bible or Christianity, our culture is steeped very thoroughly in it. For some who are just rising to voting age, it must appear incredible the amount of effort politicians still put into keeping the old faith alive. It is clearly so here in Indiana. Driving down from Indianapolis I passed many signs that the Biblio-Christic pulse still throbs in the heartland. As I stopped to check my directions, I realized I’d just parked across from Pray Street. In a land where an imperative verb for a religious function stands a chance of becoming a street name, anything is possible.

After I returned from my trip to Israel many years ago, I realized that I’d neglected to take any pictures of the Jordan River. It runs like a leitmotif through our national imagination that it almost seems worth going back just to snap a shot or two. The Jordan is redolent of Eden, a land that is, according to Genesis, defined by four rivers. Water is a precious commodity in the arid Middle East. Its fluid nature seems not to have achieved the level of metaphor for those who insist on warring over religion. For gardens to bloom, there must be water and its short supply raises tensions. Water connects, however, just as readily as it separates. One of the first steps towards the great civilizations was the technology of travel by water. Why can we no longer use it for connecting rather than gerrymandering? I don’t know why this little stream is called Jordan River, but I do stand by its banks and cast a wishful eye.

Private Property

I’m receiving a government-sponsored massage at Newark’s ironically named “Liberty Airport.” Like most federal freebies, this massage leaves me wanting. Now, I’ve had many pat-downs to protect me from people like myself, and each time I find myself feeling like so much meat for politicians’ pork-bellies in this culture of fear. I am afraid. It isn’t terrorists who worry me, but my own elected (sometimes) guardians. When being a citizen is considered the same thing as an enemy of the state, there is a problem. In the line next to me is an infant-in-arms being given a pat-down by a stranger. Yes, ma’am, my tax dollars help pay for that. Please, don’t bother to thank me. It will be only the first of many.

The last time I flew was from London to New York. In Heathrow US citizens aren’t sent through the humility of full-body scanners. Only a nation afraid of its own does that. I often ponder what this means. Frequently I hear, “these colors don’t run.” I wonder if it’s because they’re too busy sticking their hands down their own citizens’ pants. Home of the brave? Only if bravery means giving in to the intimidations of terrorists. I’ve fallen off a bicycle a time or two. One time it was with pretty messy results. I’ve even actually fallen off a cantering horse. (That may explain a thing or two.) As a child I was always told that you need to get right back on and try again. After 9/11, however, our country showed its naked fear in the overregulation of air security while continuing deregulation of the airlines. Money does not guarantee a secure future.

If our government has a desire to see its citizens naked, what more need they do? They know every penny we earn or exchange, taking a cut each time, and the only way to get on a plane without hassle is to let them view everything. It’s not good for my Constitution. Our Constitution. Moral outrage, however, is apparently a thing of the past. Full-body scanners may be science, but I still believe in the humanities. And when a babe in arms is considered a threat to national security, I have to wonder what we’re truly afraid of. And next time do you think you could use a little more pressure on my neck? I feel like I’m coming down with a wicked headache.

Read the sign

Assaulting Pepper

“I’m a Pepper, he’s a Pepper, she’s a Pepper, we’re a Pepper,” so goes a jingle that is still in my head decades after I last heard it. Early in my marriage I learned that Dr. Pepper was my wife’s favorite, and we sometimes purchased it by the case when we felt daring. I seldom drink soft drinks anymore, having converted to a more juice-oriented penchant with the increase of years and poundage. I always found it to be a pleasant flavor, however, and it was a frequent choice in those halcyon days when I could eat or drink without much regard for potential tonnage. My wife resurrected my interest in the cola with a link to Time’s NewsFeed announcing that some Creationists are boycotting the soda because of an ad that looks like evolution. The ad campaign shows the evolutionary progress chart we’ve all seen with the tipping back of a Dr. Pepper making the ape human. Creationists aren’t known for their sense of humor, but boycotting a drink because of implied heresy implies a fascinating study.

Boycotting companies that offend moral sensibilities is not an unreasonable response to ethical dilemmas. I haven’t shopped for some products for years because I don’t like what the company does. My choice, I’m sure, has little impact but it makes me feel better about myself. Sometimes the choice is religiously motivated—if I don’t want to support a particular group I won’t buy a product they offer. Secular companies, however, seldom offend theological sensitivities. I, for one, would seldom know the guilty party: the founder of the company? The current CEO? Someone in upper management? An advertising director? Do all employees have to agree with my religious outlook? Ahh, but then there is the political angle.

This is a presidential election year and the first one since 1980 without a Republican candidate who is a darling of the Religious Right. Not to suggest that Reagan or Bush the First were really as religiously orthodox as they were presented, but the perception of their friendliness to conservative Christian causes went unquestioned. With a “liberal” in the White House and the only viable alternative a mysterious Mormon, frustration must be building. On top of it all, Dr. Pepper is showing a funny image that might be interpreted as suggesting a simian forebear to those who drink the stuff! I think I understand the anxiety, and it might help if they just had a drink to calm down. After all, “wouldn’t you like to be a Pepper too?”

Dare to evolve

Mermaid Missionary

Last summer I was invited to address a church in Princeton about Christian themes in the movies. Back in my seminary days I often presented biblical material at adult forums, but my interest in religious themes in movies has grown over the years. I don’t claim to be an expert, but I have watched secular movies with an eye toward religiosity since I was in high school. The day of the presentation followed a recent viewing of Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides. Although I’ve posted on it before, that particular movie is among the most heavily freighted with Christian themes of any I’ve seen. Now that I’ve had a chance to watch it again on the small screen without the distractions of getting home through traffic afterward, I would redouble my assertions. The very premise of the movie—the hope for eternal life—is a decidedly Christian refrain and the pirates, who wear their sins on their sleeves, are eager to attain it. The missionary, mentioned in my previous post on the film, serves as a kind of foil for that theme, insisting that all souls can be redeemed. Except, he decides, Blackbeard’s.

The reason that Blackbeard falls out of the missionary’s personal book of life is his mistreatment of a mermaid. Now the swarming, man-eating mermaids are among the most memorable images from the story. One has to be captured to unlock the magic of the Fountain of Youth, and the victim happens to be the missionary’s mermaid. In a Florence Nightingale moment, the two different species fall in love—celibate preacher and heathen, mythological creature. An odd couple indeed. Carried in a glass coffin filled with water, the mermaid also needs air to survive and the heartless pirates don’t really much care. To save the little mermaid from asphyxiation, Philip shoves his Bible into the gap he breeched between coffin and lid, saving the fishwife’s life. Talk about conversion!

When the glass coffin breaks, spilling all the water, the mermaid is reborn as a human. Echoes of Splash come to mind here, as well as Disney’s earlier effort, The Little Mermaid. The transformation in this case, seems spiritual as well as physical. Syrena, whose very name invokes the classical sirens, is the one who delivers the magical chalices (communion, anyone?) to Jack Sparrow to save the life of Angelica, or, more likely, to bring Blackbeard to an end. Our busy mermaid, now transformed again to her fishly form, saves the injured missionary by converting him to her way of life under the waves. There are shades of Lovecraft here as well as a reversal of Ariel’s fate in Little Mermaid. Although critics were harsh on this movie where a comic character now takes on a serious role, I still find it compelling. Nearly all the main characters undergo transformations as the story unfolds and whether heathenish or not, almost everyone ends up a better Christian of one sort or another.