Monthly Archives: October 2012

Puny Windstorm

Nothing says wrath of God like a hurricane. Those of us along the Mid-Atlantic coast of the United States are hunkered down wondering what’s to become of daily life when the storm is over. Responses to the situation have been, well, religious. Store owners spraypaint prayer-like sentiments to Sandy on their plywood protection, urging the storm to be kind. Interviews are laced with language appropriately placating to a deity. The storm named after a mythical monster has become a god. Such responses are not limited to Hurricane Sandy, of course. In fact, when death is expected pleading with the powers that be is routinely recognized as Elizabeth Kübler-Ross’s bargaining stage of the dying process. We always hope that forces stronger than us might be willing to make a deal, cut us a bargain. The storm, given a human name, is personified as a deity. It is such a very human response to any phenomenon that forces us to realize just how small we are. Our egos may reach to the ends of the universe, but in reality we are fragile, scared children begging for the protection of a supernatural parent.

Last night as we were sitting here waiting to be hit, my family watched The Avengers. The juxtaposition of deities and heroes in the Marvel Universe fascinates me, and, of course, the movie has to explain that Thor and Loki are really only aliens perceived as gods. Compared with their human companions, they are immeasurably strong but they do not decide the outcome of the cosmic battle that devastates New York City. No, it is Tony Stark who flies the atomic bomb through the portal to the invading ice giants, saving humanity. Thor is too busy battling flying metal dino-whales. Humanity is responsible for its own salvation. The gods may help, but they alone cannot deliver. Against his protests of divinity, the Hulk bashes a protesting Loki into the floor of Stark Tower with the grunted huff, “puny god.” His only line in the movie. The portal, swirling hurricane-like over Midtown is forced closed and human technology, in the form of Iron Man’s admittedly cool armor, saves us all.

Hurricanes remind us that our technology can’t save us all. The advance warning may very well have spared many lives by the time this all blows over. As early as Thursday I was wondering if work would be called off or if I’d have to battle the rain and winds and storm surges to get to my office (which would have provided an awesome view of the final battle in The Avengers, facing, as I do, the Chrysler Tower and Grand Central). We have been warned. Our technology, however, can’t stop the force of the storm. Sandy may not be divine, but she is massive—much larger than any person who believes that there is some trace of divinity within him or her. As I sit here listening to the wind and the rain, I wonder what the weather is like in Asgard today.

Silent Fright

“[A] sight to be endured with one’s mind closed to thoughts of the sterile and hideous world we are letting our technicians make,” is how Rachel Carson described the indiscriminate use of herbicides fifty years ago. Silent Spring, although clearly dated, remains a chilling book for a number of reasons. One of the most obvious is that although the book is half-a-century old, the breakdown of some of our toxins released into the environment before it was written is still not complete. And perhaps more frightening still is the fact that we continue to stumble forward without giving enough thought to where our actions against our planet might lead. The quote above presses urgently at the heart of the matter: those with the destructive interests are almost always those who set the agenda. As Carson noted fifty years ago, the right of the nature lover to enjoy an unspoiled part of nature is just as valid as the right of the greedy to rape the landscape for “resources.” But we all know who eventually gets their way.

On a finite planet with finite resources, one of those that cannot be replaced is the beauty that nature has spent billions of years evolving us to appreciate. Desire for beauty reaches down to our most primal and basic levels. In the United States how many people drive hundreds or thousands of miles just to see Yellowstone every year? And yet, last time I was there I spied an empty can carelessly tossed into one of the stunning blue hot pools that require a delicate balance of nature to maintain. Those who appreciate the glory must always be those who pay the price. The fancy name for this is aesthetics, and some writers have suggested that the violation of beauty is a deeply disturbing problem on a philosophical or theological level. The basics are easily comprehended: we mar the planet at the cost of not only our own, but of every future generation.

Silent Spring warned those empowered to make laws that a dangerous road had already been selected. The radioactive fallout from bombs detonated to indicate national superiority continues to render some locations uninhabitable, and all of us carry traces of toxins that others have spread in our bodies. Humans, as Prometheus represents, have the ability of forethought. It is not always easy; in fact, it is often very hard. Somewhere back in a cave somewhere, long, long ago, even before our species emerged, future humans realized how. We teach. We teach our young of the dangers we’ve discovered, and instruct them to avoid them. As society evolved, money—the ultimate poison—crept into the environment and education became devalued. Even now, higher education—established for the joy of learning—has become economically driven job training. And people we’ve never met, and companies we’ve never heard of, pay off those who make laws, and another piece of our pristine environment disappears. Silent Spring remains in print, but how can we convince the disinterested to read it?

New Prometheus

Nothing portends the wrath of the Almighty like an unseasonal storm. The late season Hurricane Sandy, now dubbed the Frankenstorm because of its potential hookup with two wintery systems making their way east and south, is poised to make an apocalyptic scenario on the east coast, we’re told. Well, it is 2012, the year of apocalypses, after all. In an interesting shift, however, this storm is named after not a divine character, but Frankenstein’s monster, the human-made nightmare. I first read Mary Wollstonecraft’s Frankenstein back in high school, and I was immediately subdued. The story, undoubtedly frightening when first heard, is unremittingly sad. The “monster,” like all of us, finds himself in a cold and lonely world where he is rejected because he is different. It is cruel and Republican kind of world. All the monster seeks is companionship, acceptance. I found the story so sad that I’ve had trouble reading it ever since.

The naming of a storm after a terror created by humanity may be prescient, in a regrettable way. Only the most gullible (read “greedy”) believe that industrialization had nothing to do with it. We toasted our own planet for a buck or two. In biblical terms we have sowed the wind, for which there is only one kind of produce. Hurricanes are quite natural, and although the irregular weather of 2012 may prove simply a meteorological anomaly, it may be the result of our tinkering with the baubles of divinity. They certainly seem to be getting bigger than they used to be.

I have to admit to having a persistent fear of those doing the cobbling. Too often their motivation appears to be flat and green and indigestible. And nothing like stockpiling it makes a person somehow less human. Mary Wollstonecraft wrote Frankenstein not for money, but for love of words. The modern chimeras we construct are mere carnival side-shows by comparison. And like Victor Frankenstein we have engineered beyond our capability to understand. Our best option may be to stand silently and wonder at the forces that hold us enthralled. For in the novel, at least, the real monster is not the cadaver stitched together underneath the sheet.

Endorsement

Since a blog is a variety of media, and since media endorse their candidates, Sects and Violence in the Ancient World endorses Barack Obama for President of the United States. I endorse Obama for the working class, for those who think clearly, and for those whom society doesn’t give a chance.

Working class credentials are at a premium these days among politicians who want to appear to be just like the most of us. Often it is, in the words of Bruce Springsteen, “a rich man in a poor man’s shirt.” Some of us, many of us, maybe most of us, have grown up in the working class. We are fed a theologically conservative line by our clergy and sometimes they make efforts to wrap it loosely around political conservatism as well. I don’t buy it. I grew up working class and that mentality has never changed. This is something Obama understands. He may not be perfect, but in this working world, none of us are. Empathy is still currency.

Bemusement would be my reaction to the factual gaffs made by not only Mitt Romney but also most presidential candidates from the GOP over the last two decades, were they not so serious. They show a loss of touch not only with the average person, but with reality itself. In their world of corporate-level wealth and extreme privilege they don’t even have to obey the laws of climate change as long as their obsequious sycophants are willing to change the facts for them. I am amazed at how easily the wool is pulled over the eyes of the American public. Does anybody really listen to what these guys are saying? Does anybody bother to try to add it all up? No, not even a slide rule will help.

The economy was not fixed over night. Too many years of too much greed have dug us deep, deep in a rut. From their armored cars speeding along in the midst of motorcades maybe the politicians don’t see the homeless I walk past every day on my way to work in the richest city in the nation. Maybe they don’t see the utter lack of hope, the death of possibility in the eyes of those who, through no fault of their own, society deems useless. I’ve been unemployed, even though I played by the rules. I learned there are no rules, save one. Those with wealth will do whatever it takes to keep it.

I think Barack Obama understands all these points. As for the honorable opposition, I think his diamond-lens glasses may have grown too thick to read clearly what the tablets say. And those tablets, I’m told, are made of gold.

Barely Departed

Back before any of us, or anyone we knew, had attended Grove City College, one tragic night a student on the basketball team crashed through the glass doors of the gym on west campus and bled to death. If you walked across that part of campus at night, it was said, you would see his ghost. Everyone knew his name was Jim, but I never saw him. Folklorist Elizabeth Tucker presents a rare treat of the anomalous and academic in her book Haunted Halls: Ghostlore of American College Campuses. Professors have traditionally shied away from the paranormal. It can be a risky way to spend your time since the supernatural has been banished from the academy for ages. That doesn’t mean that students and professors have stopped seeing ghosts, though. Tucker, like a good prof, doesn’t just tell us ghost stories and dismiss class. She tries to unpack a bit of what they might mean.

Ghost stories, even when entertaining, are able teachers. Kids going to college find themselves in liminal situations. Not really independent, not really supervised, they test the limits of what they’ve been told. Ghosts, not supposed to exist, are the ultimate rebels. They don’t even obey the laws of physics or biology. But what are ghosts if not the embodiment of the human spirit? We call them spirits, and they represent that part of us that stubbornly refuses to go gentle into that dark night.

Tucker’s book will not convince a skeptic that ghosts exist. It probably won’t cause you any sleepless nights (unless you are about to send your child off to college). Her book is more about what ghost stories say about the living, as would be expected of a folklorist. Although not a comprehensive survey, Haunted Halls may well bring back the ghostly tales of your own college years, for very few places are without their specters, especially on a rainy October night. And even though I never saw Jim as I cut across west campus in the dark, who am I to say that he’s not really there?

Mrs. Jesus

First we learned that Yahweh was married. Then we hear, “like father, like son.” A Galilean tempest in a Wonderland teapot. A papyrus fragment from centuries after the fact implies Jesus might have been married and the media smells blood. The scholars who translated the materials tried very hard to demonstrate that their efforts indicated nothing about the historical Jesus, but that doesn’t sell newspapers, magazines, and website hits. Jesus being married does. Spying an article about this in the Chronicle of Higher Education recently, I pondered why this might be. Why the great fuss over Jesus’ potential marriage? This is not an easy fabric to unweave. Americans have been routinely taught to idealize Jesus in order to underscore his divinity. A man without warts, no faults, perfect hygiene, completely symmetrical. His unwed nature is silent testimony to male superiority—when God chose to incarnate, he picked a masculine template. And for a man to need anything is a sign of weakness. If some Coptic Gnostic suggests that maybe Jesus had a weakness after all, well, that’s scandal enough to sell a million copies right there.

Theologians are quick to say that God is really beyond gender, but we sexual beings are so, well, focused on our biological packaging that we just can’t conceive a deity any other way. American culture thrives on the concept of a personal relationship with God. It is difficult to have a relationship without assessing the sexual roles. More than reproduction, our sexuality defines how we interact with others. By recasting Jesus as a married man, the whole dynamic is thrown off. Girls who are taught to uphold the virginal Jesus as an ideal man would now have to create room for the other woman. Boys would no longer have to consider the monastery. Overestimating the impact of marrying off Jesus in this country might well prove impossible.

The Chronicle takes a bemused look at the issue, as befits a disaffected, intellectual publication. For most Americans the relationship can never be so diffident. Scholars may find it funny, but we are vastly outnumbered. Like a divine paternity test, ink analysis of the papyrus fragment is out at the lab. If it’s just another forgery, life goes on much as before. The fact is, as has been stressed all along, all that can be potentially proven is that some people in the fourth century thought Jesus had a main squeeze. People have wondered that for centuries, with or without a papyrus to spark discussion. We are sexual beings, and like Xenophanes’s horses, our gods must look like us or become like the shadow over Innsmouth.

“And I think the couch should go over there!”

Fall Silent

Some books impact an individual profoundly. Others are powerful enough to influence an entire society. Rachel Carson was the author of both. Tributes to the fifty year landmark of the publication of Silent Spring have appeared this month, and although the players have changed, the plot remains the same. Bryan Walsh’s tribute in Time a few weeks back captures the essence of the situation: an environmental danger is discovered, “industry” will at first deny it, then attack the science, and then try to frighten the population with the inevitable escalation of costs. Sometimes common sense wins, but only after a long tantrum by those whose main desire is personal enrichment.

Silent Spring is credited with starting the ecological movement. Until the early 1960s the world seemed vast enough to absorb our filthy, toxic run-off. We were only on the cusp of understanding that the world is much smaller than we had ever imagined. Disney had not yet published the theme song that would get through to the American imagination. We had yet to stand on the moon and look back at just how tiny our troubles were in an infinite universe. Using pseudo-religious backing, industries often claim the planet was made for us. In truth, we evolved to adapt to this planet. The sad story after sad story of those who’d figured out how to line their pockets at the expense of the health, and often the lives, of others constitutes an ignoble hall of shame. Rachel Carson, who truly deserves the title of prophet, was considered the enemy of progress. Better living through chemicals—who hasn’t heard the phrase?

The science behind DDT, which nearly drove the bald eagle to extinction, is not the culprit. The radium that rotted the teeth, mouths, and jaws of young women employed to paint it on watch hands, had always been radioactive. The coal still burning under Centralia suffers from properties properly discovered by science. In case after case we find greed running away with the science. Science unlocks the secrets of our universe, but it also gives ideas to those who are always looking to make a buck. It may be that Rachel Carson knew she was slinging stones at giants when Silent Spring was published. This one biblical metaphor might come in useful for those who are able to see the larger picture. We’ve only got one planet and if we want it to survive we’ve got to make it last. Giants should come to fear the disadvantaged who know how to use slings, whether with rocks or words.