On My Honor

Some old fashioned institutions fear new learning. Although I was a Boy Scout for only a couple of years, I grew up in Cub Scouts and Webelos and had a pretty good idea what boys talked about when they were together. It would’ve shocked me at the time to learn that some Scouts were gay, but then, I was young and most new things shocked me. I later came to learn that not only some Scouts, but also many of the guys I knew from conference-wide church groups were gay. It wasn’t so much that they were in the closet as the rest of the world was. Society wasn’t ready to admit anything that challenged male patriarchy (this was the 60s and that was beginning to shift), and homosexuality did challenge that hierarchy. The Bible could be used to back a husband’s superiority over his wife, but if two men formed a couple—as B-movie computers used to say—”that does not compute.” A society that declared sex had one purpose only—procreation—was already deep in denial about the symbolic power that sexual relations inherently possess, something even the ancient Greeks knew about. How could a culture that out of sync with nature come to embrace true equality?

In the socially conservative icebox of the fin de siècle nouveau (pardon my French), evangelical forces began to declare the Bible as the basis for defining marriage. The problem is that the Bible doesn’t do such a good job of it. Marriage is far from a sacrament, and its main purpose seems to have been to make sure men were kept accountable for the children they sired. After all, they could have as many wives as they could afford, eh, Solomon? The Boy Scouts, so loyal to God and country, preferred not to admit what was already part of their culture. You isolate a bunch of boys together in a cabin in the woods, and what happens? The old myth of Platonic hero-and-sidekick pairs with nary a thought of the pounding chorus of hormones surging through the atmosphere held up remarkably well, considering.

We like to think we live in a more enlightened age. Sexologists tell us that mating is hardly just for reproduction—the natural world belies that. The Bible says little about its purpose, not being of a scientific bent. And yet the Boy Scouts hold up three fingers and go beyond don’t ask, don’t tell. I’m glad to see that they are again considering a look at the obvious. In the Bible that cotton-poly blend you’re wearing is mentioned as evil just a few verses away from one of the few passages that says the same thing about homosexuality (and even that is an overstatement). The Bible was a product of its time, just as the Boy Scouts were a product of theirs. If they want to honor their pledge about keeping morally straight, the Boy Scouts need to consider morality in the light of what we know and open the closet doors to what society has been keeping hidden all along.

Read the green words.

Read the green words.

Mercurial Monotheism

A friend recently asked about Isaiah 45.7, “I form the light, and create darkness: I make peace, and create evil: I the Lord do all these things.” I remember as a college student how professors tended to translate the problem away. Perhaps I was too young to understand the truth of the Italian phrase, “Traduttore, tradittore”—if I may betray myself—“translators are traitors.” I eventually did come to learn that those who’d already decided what the Bible meant could translate troublesome passages according to their biases. In this case the connotations aren’t even necessary to raise hackles, for the denotations do so fine just by themselves. Let’s put Isaiah 45 in context first. This remarkable chapter is an oracle from the beginnings of the Persian period that show Yahweh doing things in unexpected ways. It begins by calling Cyrus the Lord’s anointed—yes, that is the Hebrew word for “messiah”—the people of Judah had been in exile a long while and Cyrus, king of Persia, was their deliverer.

Back then, as even today, some would’ve been scandalized at this turn of phrase. The Judahites were beginning to develop the idea that the messiah would be a mystical deliverer, someone who would free them from the sad lot of being deportees. Some thought the messiah might be a divine figure. Here Yahweh is declaring a non-Jew, a foreign king, as a messiah. You can be sure there was some questioning of the prophet’s words. Second Isaiah, however, throws a well-timed curve in verse 7: God can do this because God creates both good and evil. This is a consequence of emerging monotheism. In a polytheistic world, you could have a plethora of deities. Monotheism, however, quickly runs afoul of the question of evil. If there is one god, where does it come from? Deutero-Isaiah shows Yahweh is capable of surprising things. The verse’s plain sense is blatant. Bald. Obvious. Yahweh creates both good and evil. Otherwise monotheism would be making false claims.

In college professors tried to insist that “evil” here wasn’t that really bad kind of evil, but rather something milder—a filtered cigarette rather than a Cuban cigar. They were prevaricating, however, as I learned when I too took up Greek and Hebrew. Evangelicals like to read monotheism into the Bible from the beginning, but the Bible itself fights against them here. Monotheism, like everything else, evolved. By the time Isaiah 45.7 was being penned, it was necessary to show that Marduk, and Enlil, and Ishtar had nothing to do with Jerusalem’s destruction and the fate of the deportees. No, this was Yahweh’s doing. And there was no apology for it. Monotheism had come, but at the cost of Yahweh’s innocence. According to this part of the Bible, the origin of evil is no mystery—it is the same as the genesis of all good things.

Who's your messiah now?

Who’s your messiah now?

Know Thyself

Perhaps it is a perverted sign of the times, but sometimes I seek myself online. Not surprisingly, most of what I find there is stuff I’ve posted myself. Then my daughter suggested that I search “wiggins” in the Urban Dictionary. For people my age, the Urban Dictionary is often handier than Merriam-Webster for reading online lingo. I’d never tried to find myself there before, however. It turns out that “wiggins” is defined as “The state of being uncomfortable or freaked out… an uneasy feeling; a sense of foreboding badness.” Speaking strictly for me, this is a spot-on definition. Other Wigginses would likely take exception, but this connotation fits me like a thumbscrew. Perhaps our names make us who we are. The Dictionary also cites the source of this slang; Joss Whedon (who also gave us The Avengers) apparently coined this term on Buffy the Vampire Slayer. (His name, by the way, is defined as, “To kill off the most lovable b-list characters in your movies.”)

Naming, in ancient times, held a distinctly religious significance. Ever notice how many biblical characters were renamed by God? Even today the Catholic Church recognizes renaming after a saint as part of a person’s identity at certain crucial junctures in life. Indeed, in western culture “Christian name” equates to the more secular “given name.” Names define us.

I’ve done a fair amount of genealogical research. The actual etymological origins of the name Wiggins are obscure, but likely have to do with living in a valley. More exciting prospects trace the name back to early English forms that look like the word for “Viking,” and the name does seem to originate from the vicinity of York, where Vikings were not unknown. Still, the more prosaic, the more likely.

crucibleWhen my mother remarried, I took on my step-father’s surname. It didn’t sit well. When I read Arthur Miller’s The Crucible in seminary, John Proctor’s words leapt out at me: “Because it is my name! Because I cannot have another in my life! Because I lie and sign myself to lies! Because I am not worth the dust on the feet of them that hang! How may I live without my name? I have given you my soul; leave me my name!” When I later went to court in Massachusetts to reclaim, legally, my birth-name of Wiggins, I had that quote written on a paper in my pocket. We are our names. Slang has, in my case anyway, provided the most reasonable definition of my surname. And only courts, as I know from experience, have the authority to change this pre-decided declaration of who we are.

Old-Tyme Religion

Run, two, three, jump, slap, run, two, three, jump. I can’t believe that I’m Molly dancing on a January afternoon with total strangers and it’s just over freezing out. And my big brother’s on the side watching me mess up every step. It must be wassail season again. In a festival that always reminds me of The Wicker Man (1973, please!), I visited the 16th annual wassailing of the trees at Terhune Orchards on Sunday. Molly dancers and Morris dancers, or Mummers, from Philadelphia help make this occasion festive. The ceremony of wassailing the trees clearly has deep pagan roots and is influenced in some respects by Christianity. We sing a wassailing hymn (one that many would recognize from Christmas time), say a wassailing prayer, make a loud noise to drive the demons from the trees, dunk bread into a pail of cider and hang it from the trees. Another festivity involves writing a wish on a slip of paper and burning it in the fire. My wish from last year came true—I can’t say what it is here—giving it a success rate better than some prayers.

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Watching this year’s wish rise up in the smoke, I have high hopes for the apples and dreams.

Christianity owes much to various pagan traditions. Often we don’t see it because Christianity (and many religions, actually) tends to absorb former beliefs and practices, “baptizing” them when it can’t expunge them. Pagan gods have often become saints, whether they want to or not. When the Christianity is peeled back there is a very human charm underneath. We worry whether the fruits will return, whether the days will get longer, or whether the cold will ever break. There are powers that exist outside our grasp, and call them Christ or call them spirits, we want them to be on our side.

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Throughout Europe and much of the rest of the Christianized world, the pagan traditions are called “the old religion.” Religions like to claim antiquity as part of authenticity. In fact, the earliest religions were surely shamanistic and very earth based. Revealed religions claimed to supplant much of what people did to ensure the continued regularity of nature. Even though we know the earth is spinning around the sun and that the tilt of its axis makes for seasonal change. I know that whether or not I dip bread into cider and jamb it onto the bare branches, even if I don’t shake the noisemakers to frighten the demons, the apples will grow. But we are all human too, and I’m only too happy to join the Molly dancers if only next summer the apples will come.

Avenge This

Recently rewatching The Avengers I noticed a subtext that had escaped me the first couple of times I saw it. When Loki explains to his victims why he is spreading his chaos, he uses a concept that many of us have been spoon-fed since 9/11—that freedom is not free. When he is asked from what he is setting humans free he replies, “Freedom.” He further explains that people really don’t want freedom, but they want to be led. This sounded so much like Bush administration rhetoric that I was put on alert for the remainder of the movie. Indeed, in the climatic scene much of Midtown is attacked, and who launches the nuclear device at Manhattan? The shadowy government figures who wish to remain anonymous. “Freedom is not free,” they seem to say, “support your government without question.” The scene of police and firefighters herding frightened citizens out of harm’s way looked an awful lot like footage from near ground zero.

Comic books, I have often reflected, are already story-boarded and some make excellent movies. Some are funny and some are serious. As a child I had only a handful of comics, but they were like movies for kids with modest means. Like an adult going back to the old Warner Brothers cartoons, you see many things that escaped you as a child. Comics may not be high literature, but comic book movies, at their best, are not far from it. The X-Men movies likewise introduce themes that rivet adult attention: prejudice, discrimination, the ambivalence of evil. The stories are didactic as well as entertaining. In the case of The Avengers, the characters, while overblown, all have their own agendas but government has only one: compliance.

Sometimes I read about the early days of the American experiment and wonder what went wrong. Yes, there are certainly times and issues that demand strong centralized government for survival, but when did those who castigate such strong control decide that they should take over? Who gains here? It certainly doesn’t seem to be the average citizen. Looking over the landscape after the last laissez-faire government, the only one who ended up hands-off were the very wealthy. Left with no social responsibility, they reign, resisting any taxation so that the burden of the increase trickles down to those who, in the words of Loki, really don’t want freedom. That’s perhaps the only thing we have in common here; no matter how long ago our ancestors arrived, they were searching for freedom. Or so they believed. Like a comic book, it has become mere fantasy for most, while Richie Rich happily continues on his gilded, but vapid way.

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Moocher Man

Influenza seems to be going around. Since I spend at least three hours a day on a crowded bus I get to observe all kinds of uncouth behavior. Not that I’m always Mr. Manners (New York has a way of doing that to you), but I do cover my face when I cough or sneeze and sometimes I feel that I’m in the minority. My wife, concerned with supplies dwindling, made an appointment for me to get a flu shot at the local clinic. I went in and took a number. I guess I’ve been cursed with good health, and that may be a good thing. For my first five years in New Jersey I couldn’t afford health insurance—this was known as Bush Care—and hadn’t needed to see a doctor. Yesterday was my first time in the clinic. Although I had a confirmed appointment, a kind of argument broke out in the office (this is, after all, New Jersey) because non-patients weren’t supposed to be given the inoculation. Or they were, but they had to pay for it. Or their insurance would be charged and they could get the shot as long as they had insurance. Or why didn’t people just go to Walgreens instead. In the midst of the melee, a nurse called my name and a few minutes later I was being jabbed and sent on my way.

In all of this, one of the largest ethical issues of this country is highlighted. Who has a right to basic medical care? Among the conservative crowd that even includes some who can’t afford insurance, there are those who decry moochers. I grew up without health insurance. My mother relied on welfare to help raise three boys whose father had disappeared and our medical care was very, very basic indeed. Maybe people just didn’t say it in front of kids back in the 60’s, but I never heard anyone grousing that the poor should be left to fend for themselves. That took Reaganomics. In any case, working as hard as I could to break out of that lower class, I earned a Ph.D. only to be turned out of a job by a devout worshipper of George W. Bush. No medical insurance. Again. Now with a child of my own. What I’ve heard since the new millennium is that for those who can’t afford insurance—too bad! Just get a job, bum!

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I often think about those who make such statements and how they valorize the Bible. If I recall correctly, Jesus handed out free health care. Socialized medicine existed in his corner of the world twenty centuries ago. And we in one of the most prosperous nations on earth argue about who can get a flu shot. In the end, I paid for it; I’d even taken my checkbook along with that intent. Nobody thought to ask me. But as I sat there within full view and certainly full conversational distance, I was objectified by the medical system. I wasn’t a guy who sits on a crowded bus with people who don’t cover their mouths. I was a moocher. A liability. In the waiting room around me I noticed patients tucking away passports and green cards. This is New Jersey, after all. For many, however, despite the cold we’re experiencing, it might feel like a much, much hotter place indeed. A place where, the Bible intimates, nobody cares about anybody else and the flames never die.

Stonefaced

Railsea Imagine, if you will, life on the open sea. Back in the whaling days. Days before enlightenment really took hold. Transpose that thought onto railroads. In a day of huge moles and other underground creatures. Days when no one can imagine where the rails end. That might give you the slightest glimpse of China Miéville’s Railsea. I haven’t read too much of Miéville’s fiction, but I have read enough to know to expect a reality distorting romp through very interesting places. In this take on Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, Miéville takes some noteworthy risks in providing his characters with a native religion. Fiction authors sometimes find religion a constraining topic. Consider Salman Rushdie. More often the restraint appears to be a lack of imagination on the writer’s part—although we can’t define religion very well, we all know what it is and what it’s supposed to look like. Miéville, although in backstory, provides a new religious world where the gods are called Stonefaces and everybody believes in angels, and the explanation of where the railways came from is “theology.” Even our erstwhile Captain Ahab is chasing after her “philosophy” in the form of a giant mole that seems to have taken her arm.

With a sensitivity I’ve rarely found (the fault could well be entirely mine), Miéville utilizes religion, particularly Christianity, to construct an alternate universe. The gospel therefore appears as godsquabble, and to suggest there is anything beyond the sea of rails is literally heresy. Our protagonist Shamus ap Soorap on his voyage of discovery ends up riding to heaven on the rails only to find that there is yet even more beyond. Although religion itself is not central to the story its adjuncts are, creating an entire mythos of life on the railroad. It this world it is clear that wood and trees are related, but no one quite knows how; some suppose an evil god planted false evidence to deceive them. There’s even a healthy dose of the Odyssey thrown in, with the Medes having to pass through a mountain dwelling monster, the siller, and the Kribbis Hole.

But aren’t we really on the ark once more? For surely the bedeviled Pequod was a shadow of the same. In Miéville’s fantasy world, the open ground unpopulated by islands is dangerous. All kinds of innocuous creatures burrow out and will eat the traveler who is not safely ensconced on a train. As if to underscore the Noahic connection, Sham ends up on an actual boat on an actual endless sea. I’m pretty sure Homer never read Genesis, but the parallels between Greek mythology and the Hebrew Bible were long ago recognized by Cyrus Gordon and his colleagues. Miéville continues the tradition. Stranded on an island, Sham tries walking on the rails (read walking on the water and you’ll get the picture) until his faith fades. There are many who declare that religion has outlived its usefulness, but if an author can bring Melville, Homer, and the Bible into an intensely creative story, I think I’ll have to beg to differ.

Rational Religion

GodReasonReligionGod, Reason and Religion, the title of Steven M. Cahn’s book, fit uneasily together. Or so it would seem. Cahn, a philosophy professor, collected together in this little book a set of sixteen short, provocative essays keyed to major topics of the philosophy of religion. I’m always skeptical when I see Reason and Religion together on a book cover. It seems like an unholy plotting is going on. Perhaps it’s because those of us who study religion are often classed together with those who use slipshod techniques to “study” a subject they’ve already made up their minds about. Any scientist who’s seriously tried to learn Akkadian might have to reevaluate that premise. Happily, Cahn is not trying to promote such an idea. He states in the introduction, “My conclusions may be surprising, for although I am not a traditional theist, I find much to admire in a religious life, so long as its beliefs and practices do not violate the methods and results of scientific inquiry.” For books with Reason and Religion on the cover, that can be quite a concession.

One of the biggest faults of religions is their lack of introspection. That is a gross generalization, I know, but there is truth in it. Most religions have been severely challenged by the empirical method. Reason, it turns out, can explain most of what required one—or a multitude of—god(s) to accomplish. At the same time, religion makes people feel secure and happy. My experience of science has often been enlightening, but decidedly prickly. I’m sure I’m not the only one. Nevertheless, Cahn takes the reader through a maze of ways to think about religions from different angles. What is the tie between religion and ethics? How do we tell a good deity from a bad one? What is faith and is it a safe bet? Do miracles happen? These kinds of questions, when viewed rationally, don’t always have the dreadful results so often feared. So maybe the laws of physics aren’t violated, but that doesn’t mean you have to stop praying. Did I mention that Cahn makes concessions?

We are the cultural children of our logical, Greek forebears. They taught us to trust our reason and we’ve developed that to a high skill. Yet reason has its limits. Consider the Republican Party, for instance. Or Snooki. In life not everything adds up. Facing their final moments, few have the fortitude to keep their thoughts purely on the rational. What lies beyond we just don’t know. Science has no way of answering. So Reason and Religion should get along. There may be more than one way of knowing, and some things in our world may bridge that deep gulf between Reason and Religion. That bridge may sometimes be difficult to find. If you decide to seek it out, however, I would recommend taking Cahn along for some good reading. Even the most serious search must offer some concessions.

Neander Valley

Because we can—but should we? This is technological ethics in a nutshell. While we are still debating what it means to be human and the majority of people in the world address that question in religious terms, is it right to play with our own genetics? This is an unavoidable question when considering George Church’s search for a volunteer. Church, currently at the Harvard School of Medicine, would like to grow a Neanderthal baby. With DNA extracted from fossils, it is theoretically possible to clone a Neanderthal with a loving mommy. The usual argument against human cloning is, well, it’s human. Neanderthals are often considered not-quite-human, although our common ancestors hung together in the biological family tree much longer than our chimpanzee cousins. I still recall from my school days that a Neanderthal dressed in a suit and put on the streets of New York City would pass for a large, barrel-chested human. I think I may have seen him on my way to work once or twice, in fact.

Genetics are ethically frightening because they go down to the level of what used to be called essences. Some scientists today dispute that there is anything called an essence; all we have is building blocks. What you make of those blocks contains no essence—you can’t see it in a microscope or cyclotron, or spin it out of DNA. Therefore it must not exist. If there is no human essence, what is the problem with experimenting around a bit? Funnily enough, the question of natural selection enters into this equation. In the arboreal climes of Pleistocene Europe Homo sapiens sapiens bested their big-breasted cousins in the struggle for survival. Would the same be true in our technological era of easy obesity where work is considered tapping on a keyboard all day? After all, Neanderthals had bigger brain capacity—are we ready for that kind of competition? Neanderthal economics might take care of the one percenters even.

I have no insight to offer on such a thorny ethical issue. I do, however, believe in essences. I’ve never seen or measured one, but even concepts like good and evil are meaningless without their essences. What is the essence of a Neanderthal? I suppose it is such a question that leads Dr. Church to seek a volunteer to bring one back into the twenty-first century world. I have to admit I’m a little curious too. Just think of all the opportunities for cute commericals. Still, if natural selection already vetoed the race, maybe we should abide by that decision. This time around we might find ourselves on the losing end—who knows what Neanderthal ethics consist of? Secretly I think their essence might just be trickle down economics and they’ve been among us all along.

Me, on the way to work.

Me, on the way to work.

Twist and Shout

TwistedFaithTrue crime is not really my thing. I find regular life disturbing on a frequent basis, and reading about how someone willfully harmed another only seems to make my prognosis worse. When I saw that Gregg Olsen’s A Twisted Faith: A Minister’s Obsession and the Murder that Destroyed a Church took place in a number of places where various family members live (Poulsbo, Port Orchard, Seattle, Washington) I was drawn in. As the dark story began to unfold, at several points I almost put the book aside—this is a difficult account to read. Christ Community Church on Bremerton Island sounded a little too much like the Community Chapel in which I was reared. The power struggles, the self-righteousness, and the hidden lusts of those who live “clean lives,” all brought back painful memories. Nevertheless, I had to see how this sordid, almost salacious tale played out. Youth minister Nick Hacheney, to cut to the chase, murdered his wife and carried on affairs with at least four women in his church, including his murdered wife’s mother. Based on many personal interviews, Olsen digs deeply into the psychological trauma this one minister inflicted on the women he stalked, and revealed some of the neuroses of conservative religion.

I say “conservative religion” not to pick a fight, but because of the things both the women and men believed. After a conflict over whether to stay with the Assemblies of God denomination, Christ Community Church went independent when a new minister began seeking senior leadership over the congregation. So far that’s normal ecclesiastical politics. What made this so unbelievable is that many of the decisions were based on “prophecies” that self-proclaimed messengers of God presented and that clergy and people took at face value. Even when they blatantly failed to show any accuracy. There was never any questioning whether one received an authentic message or not. Some of these “prophecies” involved the deaths of congregation members, including the murdered Dawn Hacheney. Women with marriages in various states of decay, feeling sorry for the murderer (whom only one of them suspected) eventually gave in to his words “from God” that they were to have sex with him to help him get over his loss. The real pain was seeing the psychological manipulation he applied to his victims, causing them divine guilt if they refused.

In a community that readily accepts claims of direct messages from God, congregants are clearly sheep led to the slaughter. Most Christian denominations have mechanisms in place, no matter how faulty, to test such individual claims. Groups that trust their clergy to be honest all the time fail to calculate human weakness into the equation. It is no surprise at all when staunch, conservative clergy are caught violating their own rules (and congregants). Give them a blank check for signing God’s name to any statement and you’ve got a truly unholy writ. Many churches manage to avoid the most serious pitfalls most of the time. When one fails to discover the wolf in sheep’s wool, as happened on Bremerton Island at the end of the last century, true crime may be the mildest way to describe the results.

King’s Highway

Sometimes I forget the beauty of the Bible. With its constant current of misuse in our society, it is sometimes easy to forget that, like an abused child, the Bible is not to be blamed for being the victim. As a civilization we owe a great deal to it, and even on its own, when we overlook the insensitive and sexist parts, it remains a literary masterpiece. Just over a year ago I visited a true friend I’ve known since high school. He is not a religious man, but in his living room, on a stand, stood open the Bible. It is more than a jingoistic symbol. Even the more we become aware of other great spiritual writings: the Rig Veda, the Tao Te Ching, the Gilgamesh Epic, we shouldn’t let the sublime messages from the Bible escape our notice. Even in this secular, workaday world, the words of the Sermon on the Mount often come to me, grand and resplendent. Parts of Isaiah still bring tears to my eyes. Writers from Shakespeare to Bradbury drew on its noble sentiments.

The Bible comes to mind when thinking of Martin Luther King, Jr. Our chronological spans overlapped by just five and a half years, but I followed him to Boston University School of Theology, walked the same corridors he did, meditated in the same chapel. Even then, some two decades after his martyrdom, his vision had not been fully realized. It still remains unfulfilled. At Brown University in May of last year, I was fortunate enough to be in the crowd when John Lewis received an honorary doctorate. His remarks to the crowd were humble, few, and profound. He said he never thought of the civil rights movement as a way to greatness. He was only trying to help. He admonished the affluent, the comfortable sitting on a hot Ivy League green, “Find a way to get in the way.” Injustice must come to end. The color, gender, sexual orientation, place of birth or financial status of no person should ever be used to judge her or him. With remarks I’ve heard about President Obama, most vulgarly on Facebook, we still have a long, long journey ahead of us.

In a day when the internet weaves millions of people into a fabric that should remind us we are all part of a whole, some still insist that their shading, location, or special pedigree make their part of the cloth the most valuable. Even as revolutions against injustice—something with which Americans especially should sympathize—take place in “backward” nations by using social media, we in the “first world” still judge one another by the origins of our ancestry and the mythical superiority of our skin tones. The greatest asset the United States offers to the world is its unique blend of people from everywhere. Our country demonstrates what can happen when people from every continent put their minds and wills together to work for the common good. This clashes with the biblical brand of separatism, I know. But even Isaiah, even if it is in his third incarnation, reminds us, “Also the sons of the stranger, that join themselves to the Lord, to serve him, and to love the name of the Lord, to be his servants, every one that keepeth the sabbath from polluting it, and taketh hold of my covenant; Even them will I bring to my holy mountain, and make them joyful in my house of prayer: their burnt offerings and their sacrifices shall be accepted upon mine altar; for mine house shall be called an house of prayer for all people.”

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Money Poppins

Marypoppins Easy answers seldom hold up. Generalizing is a way of dealing with the vast amounts of data people continually process. Now that many of us in the “developed” world spend much of our time indoors, those skills earned from thousands of generations of learning about the environment have transferred to media of various sorts. I watch a lot of movies—they are my escape from an urban reality that often weighs too heavily on my primate brain. Long ago I relegated Disney to that shelf of the least profound films. Although many of their animated features of the past decade or so have introduced complexities and some seriousness into the mix, often I find myself still hungry after sitting through a helping of the Disney fantasy-land. It seems to me that nature is crueler and more careless than Disney makes it out to be. Nevertheless, sometimes something profound can be discovered in the most unlikely of places.

I never saw Mary Poppins until I was in college, but now I come back to it as an adult from time to time and I still learn from it. While watching recently it struck me that two worlds (at least) are juxtaposed here: the world of St. Paul’s Cathedral and the Dawes Tomes Mousley Grubbs Fidelity Fiduciary Bank. On the night before the Banks children accompany their father to the bank, Mary Poppins suggests that some things are important, although quite small. She refers, of course, to the birds that the Bird Lady uses to make her pitiful living. She sells crumbs within sight of an opulent bank that stands for the order of society. She is dressed in poor clothing, a beggar woman under the protective gaze of saint and apostles. The bank has guards and bars and powerful men. The worlds are brought into collision by Jane and Michael wanting to feed the birds but they instead are forced to open a bank account. In the ensuing melee, George Banks takes the blame and is fired.

On his way to the bank that night to be sacked, he reevaluates. In a brief but significant scene, he pauses in front of the Cathedral, deserted at night, and scans where the Bird Lady sat. The scene immediately cuts to the bank, still at work, its great doors snapped open by uniformed guards. The Cathedral, dark and glowering, is just down the street. And yet, once dismissed Mr. Banks chooses the way of the Bird Lady, an unemployed man spending tuppence for paper and string to mend a kite. No, I don’t attribute much profundity to Disney, but Mary Poppins does give pause for a moment. We never see the inside of the Cathedral. It is generally dark and forbidding. The bank is light and inviting, yet liable to turn on you. Maybe it is merely lack of sleep, but as I closed my eyes last night, it seemed that even Disney may have, for one brief instant, turned its back on money.

Angels of Ages

Angels&Ages February 12, 1809. Both Abraham Lincoln and Charles Darwin were born. Some days can be momentous that way. Although I’d known about this coincidental birth for some years, I had supposed it was one of history’s curiosities and nothing more. Adam Gropnik’s Angels and Ages: A Short Book about Darwin, Lincoln, and Modern Life changed all that. What’s more, while both Lincoln and Darwin are secular characters, the book has a strong dose of how religion influenced and perhaps even emanated from ideas both of these giants had. Religion actually surfaces throughout much of the book, although Lincoln grew up as a skeptic, and certainly was not a “church goer,” and Darwin was groomed for the clergy but came, through nature, to have serious doubts about God’s existence. Religion may not be Gropnik’s main point, but it has a way of following these two historical figures around.

Using a biographical and intellectual parallelism, Gropnik lays the two men side-by-side in their Victorian lives and shows how death was really a factor that bound them. Both lost a beloved child at about the same age, and both found death’s pervasiveness a problem for believing in any kindly God. Of course, we all know that none of us would be here now if our forebears had not passed on, making room for us. It is the way of nature. Nature is hardly kind or just, however. Ringing throughout this fascinating exploration is the ubiquitous problem of theodicy—in a world of such palpable suffering, where, indeed, has God gone? How do we continue to believe when all the evidence is contrary? Some of our greatest doubters have become our greatest guides.

I appreciated especially how Gropnik ends his little book with some thoughts on religion. He makes the essential point that Darwinism, by definition, cannot be a religion. Even better is the clear-eyed vision that he has that religion and science are both needed by people and they may both be held as true. Even when they’re fighting. The truth is nobody has all the answers. Those who brashly dismiss religion or science are equally wrong. In his eloquent style, Gropnik makes a decidedly sane suggestion that we should learn from our assertions of pluralism. We are accustomed to thinking about much of life and culture as being equally valued, no matter where on the planet we find it. Why can we not do the same with truths? Some will find meaning in science and have little time for faith. Others will find religion to be their ultimate and will not be bothered by science. The vast majority of us are somewhere in the middle. And what brought us to this point was the fact that February 12, 1809 was such an extraordinary day.

Hardsell and Gospel

When I find myself a considerable distance from my point of egress sometimes I have to take the subway to escape New York. Don’t get me wrong—I love New York, but Monday through Friday it is a place to work, not to play. Getting home is serious business. To get to the Port Authority Bus Terminal from the subway, one venue is a long underground passage. When I take this corridor, I find that it is often a favorite place for street evangelists during inclement weather; apparently the gospel goes underground when the weather turns nasty. So as I recently padded along that tunnel, I noticed an interesting conflict in worldviews. There were a series of street preachers, the central one with Bible in hand, and several others handing out tracts. If I’d had time I’d have listened to the preachers a bit; one was riffing with street language and intonation, and another was fluently flashing between English and Spanish. I took one of his tracts.

HanselGretel

The contrasting worldview was the posters repeatedly displayed in a long line along the wall—Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters. The movie is due for release next week. One of the modern remakes of fairy tales in the horror/action genre, this might be a fun ride, but the idea of secular forces taking on monsters clashed with the old fashioned gospel I was hearing with my ears. Or did it? Witch-hunting is not exactly PC in the days of religious pluralism when Wicca is becoming as normal a religion as the Anabaptists. Anyone who listens to most modern day witches knows that they are not evil, so I wonder how the movie plans on setting up the “evil” that our eponymous brother and sister have to conquer. I might just have to go to the theater alone to find out.

Tract

But is this really so different from our earnest street preachers below the ground? They are railing against the evil in the world, and if you follow their tracts, there is clearly no shyness about blood and torture here. The movie is rated PG-13, but what about the slip of paper I hold in my hand that shows a much bloodied Jesus hanging on a cross? Whether it’s with fancy crossbows or just plain crosses, the goal is to overcome evil. The real question is how to define it. Some, I suppose, would consider this movie a kind of evil; Gretel’s tight-fitting uniform is a little low-cut for taking on the forces of darkness, I should think. But the real evil is treating other people as enemies. And that even goes for street evangelists. If only they would admit the same for the wider world, maybe all this blood wouldn’t be necessary.

Deep Things

Religion concerns itself with the big issues. The biggest. As a child, I remember wondering how anyone could be concerned with less than the ultimate. No, I wasn’t a nascent Tillichian, I was just someone who saw things in what I supposed was a practical light. If you’ve got the temporary, the fleeting, the insubstantial over here, and the permanent, immortal, supreme over there—who wouldn’t go for the gusto? I suppose by my reasoning that all people would end up clergy of some sort, we would all be fixated on why we’re here and what our purpose was. You’ll still find pockets of theologians here and there who debate these kinds of issues, but our existence has grown comfortable enough that, for some people at least, if this ends up being all there is then, gosh, it’s been a fun ride thank you very much. But I don’t want to get out of the train just yet. I wonder if there’s more than the ultimate. It is a religious question.

For a while I grew enamored of the trappings of religion. Ceremony, ritual, strong rhetoric in sermons—these things can move you, and become beguiling. Somehow, knowing there’s an infinite universe just outside the church doors gives me pause for consideration. The ultimate must be very big. Walking through a large city helps to provide some perspective. I find myself next to buildings that cause me to tremble when I consider the implications. Next to those tons and tons of stone, steel, and glass, I am the smallest spark. But those buildings are dwarfed by the city that contains them, and that city a mere pinpoint on a map of the country. Even the planet is less than an atom in the universe of infinite size. Who can help but to be concerned about the scope of it all? Ever since I was a child I’ve worried about this.

In the media today, religion is all about hypocrisy and whose pants are at what latitude vis-a-vis whom. While matters of love are ultimate in their own way, we, as people, have a much larger space with which to concern ourselves. Science has stepped up to the dock when it comes to sworn testimony about the universe we inhabit, but even scientists shrug once we get back before the big bang. Time is even more inexorable than space—there’s always got to be a time before time. Like any child we can always ask, and what happened before that? Perhaps time is the true ultimate. Thank you for spending a bit of your ultimate reading this. It’s time for me to catch the bus, but work will never inspire me the way the rest of the universe does.

Hubble's eye view

Hubble’s eye view