Witnesses All

Witness“Only the bad man. I see. And you know these bad men by sight? You are able to look into their hearts and see this badness?” The words of Eli Lapp in one of the most memorable scenes in Witness often come back to me. While the lifestyle of the Amish strikes me as somewhat extreme, I have always admired their conviction that a simple life is a better life. The finer points of Anabaptist theology don’t always agree with my Weltanschauung, but their pacifism is the closest thing to Jesus’ Christianity that I can imagine. So as the NRA pulls out its big guns, arguing that the solution to children being massacred is to provide even more guns, I say they should watch Witness.

The year is 1985. In the movie Samuel Lapp witnesses a murder and when detective John Book finds out, he is chased to the Lapp’s Amish community where he hides out. One day young Samuel finds his gun and the camera angle is so oblique as the weapon in the foreground fades out to his grandfather Eli’s face, that you sense some violence has already been done even in the smelting of the metal to cast the revolver. “This gun of the hand is for the taking of human life. We believe it is wrong to take a life. That is only for God. Many times wars have come and people have said to us: you must fight, you must kill, it is the only way to preserve the good. But Samuel, there’s never only one way. Remember that. Would you kill another man?”

At this point all the fuss is only about limiting assault rifles. There is no sane reason that private citizens (my convictions go even further, but let’s not be too idealistic here) should have assault rifles. Not even a grizzly bear attack would justify it. The only effective weapon against violence is education. But look at one of the first budget items to get slashed when times get tough. Imagine a world where people were taught to solve their differences with discussions rather than violence. Even most crime, I suspect, would vanish if people didn’t feel themselves unfairly disadvantaged. Our violent legacy may go back to our common ancestor with the chimpanzees, but we like to imagine we’re better than they are. Are we?

“I would only kill the bad man.” So Samuel says with the conviction of a child. Badness is a fraught concept. It is often one of those qualities that we are not fit to judge in others, because we all know the directions our own thoughts take from time to time. Eli’s grandfather is a voice of wisdom here. But Samuel has the last word in this poignant scene, “I can see what they do. I have seen it.” If we exegete this just a little, however, I think we may be surprised at just who the bad really are. Think about it.

2014

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New York City, in a public place—I dare not say where—I see this sign. A certain Orwellian chill shivers my mind as I think back to 1984. Posters everywhere; you are being watched. If you see something, say something. NYPD Security Camera in Area. We have let our fear drive us into the arms of Big Brother. The problem with principle is that it requires a fair amount of spine. Who can stand in the face of possible, if remote, terrorist attack? Is it not the large, amorphous, faceless government that we, along with millions of strangers, have elected? I’ve read about their behavior; I’m not sure I want them watching me.

We have let fear define us. How far we have come from FDR’s admonition that the only thing we have to fear is freedom itself. Don’t get me wrong—I don’t approve of terrorists or any other cowards. If our response, however, is to cower in the many corners of our crowded cities while our own military patrols the parameter, well, the last place I recall like that was my visit to Jerusalem just months before the First Intifada. Even the bus drivers wore pistols. The heat from that burning car beside the road was worse than anything the Judaean Wilderness could throw at you. And still they long for peace.

Differing political and social outlooks need not come to blows. I’ll admit to being a shameless idealist if you’ll lay down your guns. Even if you won’t. It seems to me that we’ve forged ourselves a chain that reinforces outmoded associations. We can create the most intelligent weapons imaginable, but we can’t figure out how to cut a simple chain. Yes, I eye each jet flying a little too low with suspicion, and sometimes I walk a little too swiftly through the crowds at Times Square. I’d like to pretend I’m free, but ever since I read 1984—and it was close to that time—I’ve noticed that Big Brother looms taller than any tower in a world where inequality persists.

The Splice of Life

Splice Although not really scary, and although almost attainable with current technology, Dren is a curious monster. Many movies of the horror genre have explicit religious elements, but Splice may be a little too much science fiction for that. Or is it? The story is simple enough: a couple of geneticists have gene-spliced a couple of viable creatures that can be farmed for important chemicals and enzymes to solve diseases. So far, so good. But then the idea occurs to them: if the chemicals that can be used to help cure animal diseases had a human element, couldn’t they be used to cure our own diseases? And here is where the ethical quandaries begin. Adding human DNA to the mix, even when in small portions, suddenly throws open the moral dilemmas. Dren is the somewhat human result of these experiments, but the movie ends with the haunting, unanswered question—what is it to be human?

Although today the field of ethics is largely claimed by philosophers, morality is a measure of beliefs about right and wrong. In many cultures, including our own, religion has quite a lot to say about the issue. Once human DNA is mixed in the creature morphs from a bumpy slug into a creature that looks mostly human. The ethical dilemmas that surround human potential—abortion, stem cell research, cloning, and in past ages eugenics—all focus on the rights of the human person. Once a person is born, however, we almost immediately begin to curtail those rights until most of us become cogs in an unfeeling corporate machine. We are valuable, but for whose purpose? Who, sitting in their cubicle, or on their assembly line, or behind the wheel, says, “For this they defended my right to be born”?

Oddly, we privilege the potential of life without tirelessly working to improve the lot of those who’ve already been born. Perhaps, indeed, this is some form of evolutionary advantage—protect the future of the species at all costs. This idea becomes religious when it is deemed God’s will. In the movie, Dren’s creators ultimately deem her unhuman, a monster who must be destroyed. They, however, nurtured her humanness all along. While not the most profound movie ever filmed, Splice highlights the fact that ethics reflect the values of society. And society sometimes withdraws even humanity from those who’ve lost its favor.

Here’s the Church, Here’s the Steeple

Americans seldom seem to fuss much about religion unless they perceive that it is under threat. We’re real believers in religious liberty that way. The threat angle is a vector worth measuring every once in a while. What gets our collective goat? A story on CNN last week about the National Cathedral caught some attention. Those who think about freedom of religion, liberty of conscience, and all that, might find the implications of a national cathedral itself a tad troubling. Of course, it really isn’t a cathedral for all of the United States, but it is used for many displays of civil religion including several presidential funerals and inaugural prayer services. The cathedral, historically and ironically, is of the Episcopalian brand. Episcopalians boast perhaps the smallest number of mainline protestants in the country, and since they are the remains of the “established church” of England in the States, it is not just a little odd that such an edifice should be associated, however informally, with government in its former colony. The reason that CNN ran the story related to a perceived threat to American religion: same-sex marriages.

Now that same-sex marriages have been approved in three states, some couples desire the symbolism of a wedding in the National Cathedral. It is a victory of social justice that highlights one of the deepest and most persistent of religious concerns—human sexuality. Although many religious denominations have made their peace with evolution by natural selection, few have really considered the implications of reproduction and its discontents. Formally ever since the Enlightenment (and certainly informally for all of human history) sexuality has been a subject of scientific scrutiny. And not just for humans either. As naturalists observe the world of our fellow creatures, we find all kinds of sexual behaviors labelled “unnatural” in humans are quite normal in nature. The reason is the religion that is invested in reproduction. People, many religions teach, are somehow different. Besides, in the days before scientific interest in animal reproduction, few bothered to consider what other animals did, far from human eyes.

For those willing to admit that nature can teach us something about ourselves, same-sex couplings are not limited to humans. They are a part of nature. As Martha McCaughey suggested in The Caveman Mystique, reproduction is only one of a variety of reasons that humans and other animals mate. For us, however, it is a strangely sacral act. All religions have something to say about sexuality, and many express strong feelings about what marriage means. So the Cathedral Church of St. Peter and St. Paul (two men, one might note) is in the news because of what marriages symbolize for many. Marriage is about commitment, not just sex. In a nation where commitment is only fair-to-middling, shouldn’t we applaud the use of the National Cathedral to reinforce such family values? Unfortunately, for many gender differentiation trumps love in what is understood as a legitimate religious outlook.

Carol M. Highsmith's National Cathedral

Carol M. Highsmith’s National Cathedral

Soul University

ExcellenceWithoutSoul Cambridge, Massachusetts is a likable town. As students at Boston University my friends and I would occasionally take the red line to Harvard Square and shuffle through the leaves of that venerable institution that gives the square its name. One of the treats was stopping in The Coop, the Harvard bookstore that made us all feel smart. While at Harvard last year, The Coop was part of my professional, editorial remit. I spied a book entitled Excellence Without a Soul: Does Liberal Education Have a Future?, by Harry R. Lewis. I have often thought about how higher education has slipped its moorings these past few decades, and wondered what an erstwhile Harvard dean had to say about the matter. The leaves on campus weren’t so abundant last October, but I felt that same inferiority complex that being on the Harvard campus always gives me. Of course, I had received an acceptance letter from Harvard Divinity School when I considered transferring there, but it was easier to stay at BU and complain.

Lewis’s book is a somewhat nostalgic consideration of how Harvard has evolved from a seminary to a powerhouse university—the powerhouse university—in the new world. There is no doubt that Harvard is our oldest institution of higher education, and there is no doubt that it has the money to be “the best.” But by what measure? This is one of the questions Lewis asks, repeatedly. Still, the assumption is always lurking in the background that Harvard is the best, but as Lewis notes in the book, there is no one best doctor just like there is no one best book. Harvard is good, but so are many other schools. They all suffer from the same indifference in a society that takes education for granted. The real problem is that we like simple solutions. Take a look around you—you’ll see what I mean.

It is difficult to feel sorry for Harvard. The elite of the elite, it has that time-honored patina that antique specialists love so much. What it doesn’t have it can afford to buy. There is no doubt, however, that as Harvard leans, so tilt the other universities of this country. In my professional field I’ve seldom met an unemployed Harvard Ph.D. Those of us who attended even older universities (yes, the Europeans came up with the idea first) with even more recognizable alumni—has anyone heard of Charles Darwin or David Hume? Adam Smith?—are used to being passed over for positions while Harvard writes its own checks. Elitism may be at the heart of the problem. It’s not that I wish hard times on Harvard, it’s just that I wish we’d be honest about the academic enterprise. Has higher education lost its soul? To find the answer we’re going to have to look beyond Cambridge, Massachusetts. But the leaves in autumn are certainly pretty, if not so abundant as they were before.

None Too Human

Apropos of nones, CNN’s Belief Blog ran an opinion piece about the nones earlier this week. It seems that Rep. Kyrsten Sinema came out of the closet as a none at her swearing in. Nones are among the fastest growing non-religions in the world. I suspect a lot of it has to do with the internet; those who subscribe to no particular faith have discovered that it is okay to do so. Or not do so. It is so easy to see, online, that lots of others think that way. Many of these people are not atheists, and many describe themselves as spiritual, but the problem seems to be with organized religions. Religions are, of course, human inventions. Our experience of the world doesn’t ever seem to key completely to science or expectations of fairness or justice. Some of it may be due to illusion, or delusion, but we get the sense that something serious may be going on here. Many formal religions have tried to systematize something that can’t be tamed or taught to perform on cue. And since religious leaders are only human, there should be no surprise that they come fully loaded with the cadre of human weaknesses.

Despite claims of epic voyages to Hell in a small, wicker conveyance, things in human terms aren’t as bad as they used to be. Sure, the economy continues to mope, and far too few people are far too rich, but generally we’re living longer, we’re healthier (or at least bearing up better under conditions that would’ve rendered us unhealthy decades ago), and we’ve got lots and lots of toys to play with. Maybe we’ve reached a level of contentment that blocks out that quiet voice begging for attention. It is a still, small, voice. One of the things I notice is that quiet is hard to find anymore. Our gadgets beep and chirp and mutter and belt out rap or soul or rock in just about any venue where people are found. Religions have generally been nurtured in places of silence. We’ve become the nones.

The anti-atheists have done a good job equating non-belief with moral turpitude, but the ethical atheist is not hard to find. Religions have always been concerned with morals. At least since the Enlightenment, however, philosophers have weighed in on ethics, often without a theistic underpinning. The idea, according to humanists, is that we agree to certain moral expectations by our very humanity. Some don’t play by the rules, to be sure, but most of us do. Some with, some without a deity or deities telling them to do so. Once you sidle away from the angry New Atheists, you can see that atheists can be good people. Looking to blame evil on lack of belief is too easy and consequently misguided. Conservative Christians, progressive Muslims, atheists, polytheists, and nones all have their humanity in common. We are, or should be, no matter what our faith commitments or lack thereof, humanists.

Already empty, or about to be full?

Already empty, or about to be full?

Leviathan’s Sibling

TheGiantBehemoth Formulaic to the point of plagiarism at times, 1950s science fiction movies often follow the deeply worn ruts left by countless forgettable monsters. One such film that I managed not to see until recently was the biblically entitled The Giant Behemoth. In a more biblically literate society the poster’s catchphrase “The Biggest Thing Since Creation!” may not have been necessary, even though leviathan’s lesser known companion stole the title this time. Of course the movie begins with stock footage of nuclear explosions, and although I’ve seen such renditions hundreds of times, they remain troubling to the core. Those 1950s that many consider so carefree were days of insidious freewheeling with the environment, days before human infatuation with the power over nature revealed its horrifying consequences. The behemoth, a sign of Yahweh’s great creativity in Job, here becomes the human-wrought agent of destruction.

Poor Tom Trevethan is blasted by the beast’s radioactive breath in a scene more fitting to Revelation than to Job. In the funeral scene, the priest somewhat insensitively reads a description of behemoth before Tom’s sole surviving family, his daughter Jean. So like the 1950s the minister then declares that the Bible gives comfort to those left behind, when the Lord said to Job, “Gird up thy loins like a man.” Indeed. Loin girding was a masculine activity in the days before Fruit of the Loom had been grown. Comfort for the woman comes in acting like a man. Yes, the 1950s considered the man the default model of human being. It says so in sacred writ. Genesis 3, to be exact.

When the scientists can’t figure out what killed the old man, along with thousands of fish, they ask Jean if her father said anything before he died. She tells them about behemoth. Being scientists, they have no idea what a mythical, biblical creature might be. Jean informs them, “It’s some prophecy from the Bible; it means some sort of great, monstrous beast.” Well, Job is technically not prophecy. Actually it’s not even untechnically prophecy either. In the 1950s, however, if it was biblical, it could be interpreted as prophecy. The real foretelling, though, is clearly atomic. Such films can easily be forgiven their biblical infelicity for the sake of their good intentions of reigning in human self-destructive behavior. In the end science destroys the biblical beast, but I’m left wondering if it isn’t more of a parable than a prophecy. I guess it’s time to gird up my loins and go find out.

Out with the Old

It’s become a time-honored tradition, as an old, secular year ends and a new one, brimming with potential commences, for various pundits to sum up the past twelve months for us. And since there hasn’t been a year without religion since Adam and Eve were created, it stands to reason that the religious year in review is yet another perspective to take on this mid-winter’s day. The New Jersey Star-Ledger, my state’s answer to the New York Times, ran a 2012 top stories in religion feature on Sunday, the one day that anyone might be tempted to pay attention to things spiritual. The list reflects the view of A. James Rudin and it features several stories, most of which tend to show the embarrassing side of belief. Rudin begins his list with an amorphous Islam as reflected at unrest in the Middle East. One of the misfortunes I often deal with in my editorial role is this association of Islam with violence. There are deep roots to the trouble in the Middle East, many of them planted and watered by Christians. Religious extremists, however, are the more sexy side of the story and they always abscond with the headlines.

I should take care with my word choice, however, because yet another of the stories—dominated as they are by Christians—concerns the Catholic Church’s continuing troubles with hiding away child molesters (number five). The number two story, also about Christians, is also about sex as well. That story highlights the chagrin of the Religious Right at the recognition, long overdue, of same-sex marriages in three states. Gender plays a role in story four, the succession of Rowan Williams as Archbishop of Canterbury, but also the related story of how the Church of England still refuses to recognize women as bishops. A deity who can’t see past genitalia should be troubling to any believer. Yet a full quarter of one commentator’s top religious stories are concerned with sex. That’s how the world sees the issue.

The remaining stories Rudin points out have to do with Jewish-Christian relations, aging pontiffs, and the growth of Nones in the US religious marketplace. Anyone who spends time reading contemporary accounts of religion will be familiar with the Nones—that increasing number of people who declare no religious affiliation. Ironically, those involved in such scandals as we often see in the headlines are troubled by the number of people opting out of traditional religions. I almost wrote “opting out of faith” there, but that’s not really the issue. The Nones I know, and there are many, don’t necessarily not have faith. They have lost confidence (if they ever had it) in religious institutions. Interestingly, Rudin concludes his list with the tragedy in Newtown, Connecticut, along with the death of Sun Myung Moon and a few others. The Newtown tragedy remains the least and most religious event in the past year. And unless those of us who survive do something about it, these dead will have died in vain. Let’s hope 2013 has something better on offer.

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Priests, Queens, Goddesses and Fruit

“And when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was pleasant to the eyes, and a tree to be desired to make one wise, she took of the fruit thereof, and did eat, and gave also unto her husband with her; and he did eat.” So Genesis 3.6 summarizes the most expensive meal in the history of eating out. For centuries the literally minded have wondered what the exact species of fruit might have been. The apple was long favored because its Latin name sounded suspiciously like the word for evil. In the Bible the fruit with the most theological freight, however, was the pomegranate. The high priest’s robes were designed with dangling pomegranates alternating with silver bells along the hem. Some have speculated—and it can only be speculation—that the tree of life, rather than the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (the latter better abbreviated Totkogae) was a pomegranate. For the Greeks, however, the self-same fruit led to Persephone’s entrapment in the Underworld for half the year.

Although the Bible doesn’t specify this, the apparent reason for the pomegranate’s privileged religious meaning seems to have been its numerous edible seed casings, or arils. Over time it acquired the association with fertility—not surprising with its numerous seeds. Indeed, my first experience of pomegranate was in seminary, which, like its name implies, is a place of great fertility. It is one of the more labor-intensive fruits, however, having a tough skin and plenty of inedible membrane. Even with Christianity’s inimical disdain for all things reproductive, the pomegranate survived in Christian art and symbolism, becoming a symbol of—what else?—resurrection.

Today, POM Wonderful has claimed the life-giving qualities of the pomegranate as its signature for good health and long life. This California company even has a history lesson on its website, tracing the pomegranate back to the Early Bronze Age. Interestingly, the initial picture used to illustrate this early period is a goddess, Kubaba, who was perhaps an historical remembrance of the queen by that name. The Sumerian King List gives Kubaba, the only queen on this list, a reign of a century. Well-chosen for advocating the fruit! In a relief of her eponymous goddess from Carchemish, Kubaba is shown with a pomegranate in her right hand. POM Wonderful’s website does not show, nor even mention the pomegranate on the relief. Perhaps like the pomegranate itself, this is worthy of digging in a bit deeper. Any food website that draws attention to ancient Near Eastern goddesses is doing its job exceptionally well. Who would suppose that one fruit could unite an ancient queen, an obscure goddess, and an Israelite high priest shuffling around the temple? And of course, our mother, Eve.

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Fun Fiction

While I tend to limit my ramblings to once a day, every now and again something prompts another little post once the bus finally gets in and before sleep completely takes over. One such thing was an email from my friend Marvin announcing the publication of his latest story in Jersey Devil Press. It’s a fun piece about a malevolent goose. So, if you’re in the mood for a fictional escape, and you’d like to read something that’s free, check out “Good for the Gander.” Be sure to tell Marvin I said “hi.”

Mystique-alism

CavemanMystiqueReading in a public place gives peer pressure an entirely new meaning. Public transit is a place where I spend at least fifteen hours a week. Not having converted to Kindle, or even Nook, I still prefer the feel of paper in my hands. With the open book, however, comes exposure. On the bus you have no control over who climbs in next to you. You’ll be spending an hour, maybe two, side-by-side, and although s/he may never see you again, it could be that tomorrow they will find themselves once more at your side. I’m very conscious of the books I choose under such circumstances. I shouldn’t care what others think, but I do. Recently my choice was Martha McCaughey’s The Caveman Mystique: Pop-Darwinism and the Debates Over Sex, Violence, and Science. The issues here were multiple. McCaughey consciously chose her riff on The Feminine Mystique as a catchy, if very appropriate title. The person plopping down next to you with a bleary eyed glance over on an early morning bus will probably catch only one or two words in the title. One of them will be the only word with an x. Still, this important little book has big implications for the “s word,” and how men are socialized to think about sex.

Darwinism, and evolution, are concepts that are keyed to religion in the United States. There is no avoiding it. McCaughey, as a sociologist studying science, shows just how many assumptions scientists make about the universal applicability of their work. She suggests something that many of us have learned over the years: absolute objectivity is not possible for any human being. We are all socialized. We all bring biases to our work. We’re all human. McCaughey doesn’t question the results of scientific investigation, however. Her concern is that in a male-dominated field the results might be, well, screwed up. In a series of delightful thought experiments, she shows how very basic sexual biases get played out into larger scenarios that tend to excuse the inexcusable: violence against women. Men have to be taught to be cavemen. Science, improperly disseminated, gives men an excuse for blaming evolution for their lack of character. It seems to this man, at least, the McCaughey is certainly on target.

In a particularly insightful paragraph, McCaughey writes, “Invoking God’s will, or nature’s [i.e., science], hides the political context in which such a will was ‘revealed’ or ‘discovered.’” How easy it is for both scientists and religious believers to conclude that the way of their belief system is the only explanation for the world. Both camps forget they are profoundly political. As humans we can’t escape it. The world defies easy explanation—there are truths that we haven’t discovered yet. The main point of The Caveman Mystique, however, is clear. Just as men have been led to believe that the caveman is inevitable, they can be also taught that such a statement is a lie. Biologically there are gender differences, but socially—and this is the ability humans boast of—we can and must insist on equality.

Monkey See, Monkey Do

ConquestPlanetApesThe year was 1972. In the continuing saga of the Planet of the Apes, the fourth installment, Conquest of the Planet of the Apes, addressed the civil rights movement directly. Caesar, the son of Cornelius and Zira, is the last speaking ape left in the past to which his parents had escaped. Inexplicably, the other great apes have all suddenly evolved by 1991—the year in which the story is set—into large sized, almost upright creatures whose population matches than of humans (almost). Initially purchased as pets since the cats and dogs had died off in the late 80’s, apes have been imported as slaves. They are given menial tasks and beaten mercilessly if they make errors. A deep fear pervades the establishment that these apes will try to take over. Breck, the governor of California, decides to find and kill Caesar, at any cost, while his deputy MacDonald tries to save him. When Caesar reveals himself to MacDonald, an African-American, he states that he especially should know what it means for a people not to be free.

Martin Luther King Jr. had been assassinated only four years earlier and although civil rights had made progress, there was still a long way to go. Still is a long way to go. As an affluent culture, we remain reluctant to share. We still see disproportionate numbers of African-Americans and Hispanic Americans forced to live in areas that the amorphous “white” population has fled. Xenophobia is one of the less noble traits with which evolution has endowed us. Even so, the classes we devise aren’t always helpful in determining who people really are. “White” can mean anyone from the southern tip of Chile to the tundra of eastern Siberia. On job applications now “Hispanic” is classified as “white.” I get the feeling that there’s a few unresolved issues here. The sense of entitlement did not begin with this generation. Those who have naturally suppose that they deserve. Caesar observes the unfair treatment and, down to the detail of the weapons the apes stockpile, leads a plantation-style revolt that overcomes a heavily armed command post. Gorilla warfare indeed.

In classic 1960s-70s style, Caesar grandstands after his victory. He was about to order Breck’s execution, but stays his hand in the recognition that even humans deserve to live. We do have to wonder where he might have learned about God, being raised by a circus trainer and in what is an otherwise completely secular society in the film. In any case, his final words in the movie place the apes on a higher moral plane than humans. “But now… now we will put away our hatred. Now we will put down our weapons. We have passed through the Night of the Fires. And who were our masters are now our servants. And we, who are not human, can afford to be humane. Destiny is the will of God! And, if it is man’s destiny to be dominated, it is God’s will that he be dominated with compassion and understanding. So, cast out your vengeance. Tonight we have seen the birth of the Planet of the Apes!” Maybe it’s all the dead bodies around, but I’m still having a little trouble with the “Destiny is the will of God” part.

Robotics FIRST

Wired

I knew it! It was right there on the cover of Wired magazine. “The Robots Take Over.” And it is also the very day of the FIRST Robotics kickoff, the day when Dean Kamen and his team announce to thousands of high school kids, teachers, engineers, and interested parents, what the 2013 FIRST robotics competition will be, spurring us into six frenzied weeks of designing, planning, and building a robot to take to competitions. First Atlanta, then the world! It must’ve been their plan all along.

The article in Wired, by Kevin Kelly, does have hints of cheekiness throughout, but for the most part is on target. How many of us already use computers or some kind of robotic devices to complete our jobs? Kelly points to the inevitable: robots can do it better. The upside is that when robots take away jobs they create new ones, like Charlie Bucket’s dad getting a job repairing the robot arm that took his job away at the toothpaste factory. If you don’t want a tech job, too bad. That’s what the new definition of work is becoming, since labor is already being taken over by robots. Those who can look far enough ahead can see robots doing, as Kelly puts it, any job. What makes this sound apocalyptic to me is the fact that we, as a society, undervalue education. What will the undereducated do? Their jobs are the first to go. I feel the tremors of a revolution that hasn’t even started yet. People need something to do.

It is apparently without irony that Kelly suggests that any job people do, including in the service industry, can be done by robots. I am an editor. A robot may be able to find grammatical errors (Word and Pages already do this), but they can’t capture the soul of a writer. We write for the enjoyment of other people who experience being people in the same way that we do. There is an inherent arrogance in the Artificial Intelligence movement that believes (yes, it is a belief) that intelligence and mind are the same thing. There is no room for a soul in this machine. Many biologists would agree: we’ve looked, no soul. But even biologists know that they’ve got an identity, aspirations, contradictions, and emotions. It is the unique blend of these things that make, what we can for convenience call, the soul. There are entire industries built around the care for that soul.

Many scientists are still betting on the end of religion, the ultimate repository of those who believe they have souls. Religion, however, is not going away. When we see robot psychiatrists, robot social workers, robot clergy, robot writers and artists, and robot Popes, we’ll know the apocalypse has truly transpired.

Without a Hitch

I’m not really afraid of dying. All those years of being taught that “to die is to gain” have obviously done their work. At the same time, it is a poignant exercise to read the posthumous memoirs of a dying man. I remember my first funeral. Although I don’t recall the name of the poor, deceased honoree, I still see the reactions of the living vividly. I was under ten at the time, and the funeral home in Franklin, Pennsylvania was in a very somber mood. The man, who had been a friend of the family, “was not a Christian.” Having been buffed and rubbed in the Fundamentalist tub from my earliest days, I didn’t realize that what was meant was actually that he hadn’t been an active member of our particular church. Nevertheless, as a child, you get deeply impressed with these kinds of things. “I’ll never go to the funeral of a non-Christian again,” I remember my mother telling a friend. “The minister couldn’t find anything comforting to say.” While funerals are sad occasions by definition, this one left a crater that is still fresh over forty years later.

MortalityChristopher Hitchens is someone I found through his book God is Not Great. I don’t have time to read magazines, and I hadn’t read any of his previous works, but he raised some extremely valid points in this diatribe. My wife recently bought me his final oeuvre, Mortality. I felt as if I were back in that funeral home. It is not that I still hold to the odd belief system of Fundamentalism—of this my regular readers will have no doubt—but it is the forlorn feeling of reading the words of someone dying who hopes for nothing. Yes, it may be Stoic, and even noble. Certainly it seems far more worthy than visions of living in opulence with lots of available virgins with whom to toy while angels strum their harps overhead, but the certitude that one’s final days will be nothing but prolonged suffering—ouch! Maybe there isn’t a heaven, and if there’s a hell there’s something morally wrong with the universe, but doesn’t some residue of a human life remain? Even if it’s just the memories, the marks that we’ve made on others’ minds, don’t we somehow survive? Dying without hope nevertheless feels like milling about in that doleful crowd of specific Christians years ago.

Hitchens does offer a chapter in his final words devoted to those Christians who responded to his cancer with an unholy Schadenfreude, trying to torture the thoughts of a dying man with the promise of an eternal hell after experiencing a temporary hell of cancer treatments. This chapter made me sick. Anyone who so completely misses the message of compassion that suffuses the Gospels can hardly claim the designation Christian, I would insist. No one, no matter what their eternal plans, has the right to try to fracture anyone’s tenuous tranquility to make their own crown shine a little brighter. Such weekend warriors likely imagine that they are defending their fragile God, but in reality they are demonstrating that some of the criticisms of Hitchens were very well placed to begin with. No religion will live up to its full potential until it succeeds in the most basic practice of all—treating all people with respect and dignity. Until then, death has the final word.

Forget this Alamo

A person’s car is a haven of sorts. Very expensive, dangerous and yet necessary, they have made life a fair bit easier than caring for horses when you need to trot down to the Apple store to pick up a charger for your iPhone. When we leave our cars we don’t have to strap on the feedbag, but in many parts of the world, we do have to lock them up. From a young age I was taught not to touch somebody else’s parked car. People are very possessive of them and some folks get upset at even a smudged finish. I always find it strange, then, when a flyer ends up tucked under the windshield wipers. Not that it happens often, but around the holiday season some promoters will go in for the cheap advertising trick of that paper that first makes your heart skip since it looks like a ticket, and then annoys you when you find out it’s just more junk mail. The other day my wife came home with a new type of flyer under the blades. It was from Tony Alamo Christian Ministries.

To be honest, I’d never heard of Tony Alamo before. I seemed to remember the last part of his name, though. In any case, the earnest-looking evangelist warned loudly in the headline “Never Take the Mark of the Beast or You Will Be Eternally Sorry.” This was a cheerful way to greet the holiday season, but I decided to give him a hearing, or at least a brief reading. By the second short column I’d discovered his “Bible only” technique included interpolating [in brackets] his own reading of the Scriptures, but still enclosing them in the quotation marks. This is, categorically, not so different from preaching—the practice of making your followers believe that you have an inside line on what God meant to say in the Bible, but obviously didn’t spell out very clearly. This is the problem with all Bible literalists movements: they claim solely Bible [but only when interpreted their way]. Those who’ve found their windshields thus violated have grounds to be suspicious [if I understand this technique correctly].

It turns out that Tony Alamo is currently in prison [one suspects the parallel to Paul of Tarsus, or at least Silas, has passed his mind] for ten counts of transporting children across state borders for illicit purposes. I’m not sure which Gospel condones child molestation [perhaps “suffer the little children to come unto me”], but from the Illinois State Pen he still reaches out to put his grubby flyers beneath the nation’s windshield wipers. He also seems to be terribly worried about the end of times. With a 175 year prison sentence, anybody would be [unless, of course, they’ve be persecuted for righteousness sake, in which case they are blessed—and that’s actually in the Bible]. So beware the paper that get wadded up beneath your wipers. Sometimes the Alamo is best forgotten.

Alamo