Persistent Idealism

Few spans of human life are so idealistic as our college years. There we meet many people from beyond our hometown, and we learn the treasures of diversity and different ways of doing things. Ideas mix and blend, and with professors who’ve learned so much telling us all the places we can go, the possibilities seem endless. I find the idealism of college kids refreshing. That’s one reason, I suppose, that I enjoyed teaching them so much. At work you’re far more often told why things won’t work and how they can’t be done. And I find myself thinking back to college and wondering when people lost their sense of vision. When did idealism die?

Yesterday I spent on the campus of the University of Texas at Austin. Between appointments I was crossing a quad area and noticed a bunch of blue and white balloons. We’re all still kids inside when we see balloons. I stopped to look. Then I noticed, across the street (in which sat a very obvious police car) a small group of students waving a Palestinian flag. Several police, frankly looking bored, stood between the two peaceful groups.

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Looking back to the balloons, there were a series of tents set up and a sign read “Israel Block Party.” Obviously this had been a carefully planned event, and we all know the heinous story of the constant persecution of the Jews throughout much of “civilized” history. The simple table across the street bore the sign “Free Palestine.” Less than ten students stood around, handing out literature, peaceful, yet literally flying their flag. Yes, the Palestinians have also been oppressed for much of their history. If only adults could live so peacefully as these students. My heart went out to them.

The issue of Israel and Palestine is one of the deepest scars in our collective human psyche. Indirectly, that conflict is responsible for many tragic terrorist acts, including the attacks of 9/11. And it is so frustrating because both sides (and there are actually more than two) are victims. We like our good guys in white and our bad guys in black. I’m still an idealist, after all. Yet in Israel/Palestine we have two historically oppressed groups vying for the very same land. And in the middle of this maelstrom, the Bible. The very book that can be read as an eternal promise by God that the people of Israel should own this land. By 1947, however, we’d stopped relying on God and began relying on guns. And atomic bombs. And life has never been the same since.

Images of the wall going up between Israelis and Palestinians just after the wall went down in Berlin reminded me of Bush’s proposed wall between Texas and Mexico. Here in Texas just about everyone in the lower paying jobs I’ve met is hispanic. And friendly. Grateful in a way that many of us wouldn’t emulate in such low stations. We are all people. We all experience the same feelings, needs, and desires. Why not tear down the walls and let us look at one another? Take a good, long look. And my idealistic self says, if we face another human being with love everything will be all right.

Austin City Limits

Maybe it’s just because Texas feels like the brass buckle of the Bible Belt, but I had moral qualms about landing in George Bush International Airport this afternoon. Texas has so many worthy heroes, but in the land of Rick Perry, recent Republican politics is king. Not queen. But king. It felt like a work of supererogation to drive to Austin after a three-and-a-half hour flight to Houston, but Texas reminded me of Illinois with palm trees. And cacti. Well, okay, and longhorns. One could get culture-lash flying here from New York. Before I embarked I had visions of my rental car being a huge Cadillac with real steer horns for a hood ornament. I just couldn’t picture myself in a ten-gallon hat.

I sometimes wonder how religion could’ve come to divide a nation such as the United States. Founded on the principles of religious liberty, lately one party has been claiming the right to legislate morality for all, deeply polarizing a populace that should be able to accept differing viewpoints. Still, there are issues on which human rights insist there can be no compromise: women have equal rights with men, and have the right to self-determination just like men. It truly amazes me that such common sense can even become a divisive issue. If we could agree on even that, we’d have to declare it progress over the objections of the Religious Right. My thoughts wander that way when I tarry in the south. It’s really a pity. The people are friendly here and the landscape has its own beauty. Are we really that different?

I’m not altogether convinced that this isn’t just a case of prejudice masking as religious sensibility. Religions can be all too gullible when they feel their honors might have been impugned. While I regularly express my opinion here, I do respect nearly every form of sincerely held religious belief. None of us has all the answers, and it seems the height of hypocrisy to insist that anyone is right all the time. Nevertheless, my sojourn beneath the Bible Belt has me wondering about the origins of various religious squabbles. Or maybe it was the just the long drive along the “presidential corridor” after touching down at an facility that most websites still refer to as simply, Houston International Airport. Travel broadens the mind—it is, in fact, an excellent form of education. Maybe if we got out more we would all get along better.

From here we all look the same.

From here we all look the same.

Continental Drift

So this is the way epiphany works. (I know it’s Lent, but I’ve got bigger fish to fry.) I sat down to check my personal email after a horrid day at work, and since I have a Verizon account, I can’t help but see the news headline that’s on the page when I open it. When the headline said something about a new continent discovered by scientists under the ocean, I’ll have to admit that Atlantis sounded better than anything I’d heard in the office. So it was worth a click.

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Turns out that this isn’t Atlantis at all—I have this habit of making naive assumptions—but a continent just north of Madagascar that sunk some nine million years ago. No happy lemurs or Homo sapiens around then. So when this Atlantis sank, there was nobody around to see it. At least not Plato.

The story was broadcast by Newsy and it made mention of Science World Report. Here’s where the epiphany piphed. I’d never heard of Science World Report. When I went to their site, the wonders of the universe spread out before me. “Dying Stars Reveal the Clue to Extraterrestrial Life: Earth-like Planets Unmasked” read one headline. “How Dinosaurs Evolved the World’s Longest Necks While Giraffes Fell Short.” These are the things I need to brighten me after a rotten day. A world with wonder in it. A world where money is not the sole, or even the highest good. A world where an intellect need not go to waste.

“Human Language May Have Evolved from Birdsong: New Meaning for Communication.” This website is like my eternal monologue in headline format. I’m not naive enough to suppose this website will be the nepenthe for all my workaday woes. But it does serve to remind me that science and religion are not always foes. A religion only becomes belligerent when it takes its truisms too seriously. We evolved in a world of wonder, but we’ve taken great care to remove the wonder from it. As if joy and delight were puerile phantasms with no place in the serious adult world of finance and industry.

I became an educator because I’ve always been in love with ideas. I lost my job in education because I was an idealist. Yes, continents do indeed sink. And while it may not be Atlantis down there, a simple click led me to a world of wonder. And that is, if anything can be, cause for hope.

In Touch with History

A friend recently sent me a package with a Roman jar handle from Caesarea Maritima. It’s not everyday that I receive 2000 year-old artifacts in the mail. Holding that ancient jar handle reminded me of my short stint as a wannabe archaeologist, not far from Caesarea at the site of Tel Dor. There’s no thrill like unearthing an artifact that has been buried for millennia, knowing that you are touching something a fellow human being dropped for the last time back in the days of the early Roman Empire. It is a humbling experience. In all probability the final touch was a heave into the dump, since clay jars are easily broken. But as I finger this ancient piece of useless junk, I can plainly make out how fingers like mine twisted the clay and pressed it on the jar body, much as I once did in art class, decades ago. I am connected with a stranger over the millennia by this simple bit of clay. We are united in an ancient family.

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Archaeology began as a biblical venture. Anyone who watches Raiders of the Lost Ark with archaeological sensibilities, after rolling their eyes (yes, it’s deserved) can’t help but realize a kernel of truth is buried here. Archaeologists don’t search for the ark, but it was religion that gave them the idea in the first place. Travel to the Middle East and begin digging up the places mentioned in the Bible. Those early archaeologists wanted to prove that the Bible story happened just as it was laid out. Only it didn’t. Archaeology soon began to reveal a more complicated picture. Jericho was uninhabited in Joshua’s day. And was there even a historical Joshua? What began as a charge to demonstrate that the Book of Books never gets it wrong transformed into a science with its immutable commitment to objectivity. And objects.

The desire for historical proof meets a deep need in people. We want to know what really happened. This simple jar handle before me tells a mute story of a person like most of us—never famous, never noticed in the noise of first century Palestine. Just some Jane or Joe throwing out the trash. That is the story of archaeology. That is the story of human life.

Every once in a while I ponder how insignificant we are. The vast majority of us will be remembered only a few years or decades beyond our demise. What will our artifacts say about us? One of the relics that will be found in the rubble of my life will be a Roman jar handle from an even earlier age. Long ago deemed junk by a person so different, but not so very different, from me. It was discarded two millennia ago. When it was found in the twentieth century it was a treasure. Thanks, Susan, for putting me in touch with history.

Wrongful Resurrection

Re-Animator

H. P. Lovecraft was a tortured man. An atheist, he saw the inevitable dilemma of human life. We want to live forever, but even the short time we have is full of suffering. Almost Buddhist in his sensibilities, Lovecraft also knew the hubris of trying to reach too far. I was reminded of that when I recently watched Stuart Gordon’s Re-Animator. Like most of Lovecraft’s stories, the translation to film is difficult. The angst and haunting lie far too deeply embedded in the original stories to show, even with the finest acting, with any degree of verisimilitude. And the tales have to be padded out to get to that magic 85-minute mark. Nevertheless, there is something of their master still in them.

Re-Animator is based on Lovecraft’s short story, “Herbert West—Reanimator.” West discovers the secret to bringing the dead back to life. In the movie version, the result is unremitting chaos. The dead are somewhat zombie-like until Dr. Carl Hill, very freshly dead, retains his consciousness and begins his insidious plan to create a cohort of more proper zombies to do his will. Like Gordon’s other interpretation of Lovecraft, the eerily moody Dagon, there is a little too much blood-lust for my liking, but a point is being made, so I watch on. The point is very much at the heart of Lovecraft’s personal dilemma. We want to live forever, despite the pain and disappointments of the life we know. Life is optimistically resilient that way.

Lovecraft died a painful, natural death at the age of 46. His writings never demanded much attention during his life—thus seems to be the fate of many of the truly original. In the 76 years since his death he’s gained an enviable following. He might almost be said to have achieved a kind of immortality. A safe immortality. As he knew in life, resurrection is a double-edged sword. We may be reluctant to give up the only life that we (most of us, anyway) have consciously known, but have we really considered the implications of going beyond the line that nature has drawn for every living thing ever animated? Our technology keeps us alive in bodies that only continue their inexorable march toward the grave.

Am I sounding a bit bleak? Blame it on the rain. Immortality, in any belief system, only comes at a great cost. H. P. Lovecraft knew that and took the risk in spite of it.

Apples to Apples

Religion is all about death. Well, maybe not all, but still…

All religions deal with death in some detail. Perhaps that’s because death is such a universal experience. I think about it quite a lot—not to do so seems to be caught at a crisis without having thought through the implications—but mine are not always morbid thoughts (although, by definition, they may be). When I read Mary Roach’s Stiff a few years back, before I started this blog, I was amazed by the number of ways one could decide to have their “remains” treated. When I was a kid it seemed that there were only two options: bury them or burn them. To some religions the latter option felt a little close to Hell and was condemned as a sin. Occasionally I’ve posted here about various new methods that have made the news: having yourself morphed into a bullet or diamond.

In what I hope was not too much of a hint, my wife shared a further option with me—having yourself turned into a tree. Now while this seems what nature intended, it also feels profoundly Asherah-like. I have my doubts that Asherah was a generalized tree-goddess, but there is some kind of connection between wood and the goddess. Certainly by the Rabbinic Period of Judaism any tree in or near a sanctuary could be understood as the goddess and therefore a threat to monotheism’s hegemony. The solution: chop down the tree. Now Asherah whispers back, when you die, I can make you a tree.

People, like all animals, biodegrade when they die. Some saints apparently avoid this fate while others are pickled to a state of perfection artificially, but for us regular folk nature has a plan. Animals eat the plants, plants eat the animals. We are all consumers. Bios Urn is the brainchild of Gerald Moline and features your deceased body packaged in a biodegradable urn along with tree seeds of your choice. All you need is a post-holer and a bit of rain. Some might wish to be a redwood with their aspirations to immortality. I think I would prefer to be an apple tree. Apple trees give back year after year. Plants, by their floral nature, are givers. The apple tree gives in a way that seems especially divine. After all, many are those who claim it is the very tree of Eden.

What everyone wants

What everyone wants

Gods and Goliath

EyreAffairNot only gods are proficient at creating worlds. Writers, as readers know, are the creators of worlds too. I first discovered Jasper Fforde via a friend’s recommendation. With the depressing demise of bookstores, however, I end up picking up whichever one happens to be on the shelf. Not that this is a bad thing, but I find myself in a melancholy cast when I think of all the joy that is not being had by avoiding reading. It’s all rather hollow, wouldn’t you agree, Mr. Eliot? All of which is to say Jasper Fforde’s The Eyre Affair was great fun. As usual when I read fiction, I kept an eye out for how religion appeared in this alternate world—most fiction that ignores religion completely somehow seems to be less realistic than Fforde’s fantastic tale. In the world of Thursday Next, the churches are dedicated to GSD, the Global Standard Deity. As one of the characters explains, the GSD is a combination of all religions intended to stop religious wars. It’s a great idea on paper, but religions are prone to wars as sparks fly upward.

Somewhat later in the novel Thursday encounters a crucifix-wearing vampire. Fooled by the sigil, she almost becomes a victim to the blood-sucker. When Thursday points out the supposed impossibility of a vampire wearing a crucifix, he replies, “Do you really suppose Christianity has a monopoly on people like me?” Although Fforde can be a great comic writer, some of his quips are quite profound. Indeed—does Christianity have the only vampires? All religions have their monsters, whether that’s what the author meant (score one for reader-response theory). The truth is the truth, no matter whether intentional or not.

The idealized world of The Eyre Affair is one in which religion has become universal. The great military conglomerate in the book is called Goliath not because of the Bible but because of its size and apparent strength. It is brought to its knees, however, by Thursday—a female David, if you will. In practical terms, throughout the book the military is much more powerful that the church of GSD. Perhaps that’s because people are afraid. Religion, which once upon a time allayed fears, has now become one of their main generators. “Nothing frightens me more than religion at my door,” John Cale once sang. In this rich complexity the reader is invited to bask as Jasper Fforde works his magic. Do yourself a favor and pick up one of his books. Before it is too late. You might find yourself learning a thing or two about religion. I did.

Wolves and Sheep

A state of the university address might not be a bad exercise.  If I might be so bold, as an inveterate outsider who nonetheless has tried to play by the rules, I have been cast in a supporting role—I think a few of my observations might be valid.  Some of my more pastoral colleagues try to reassure me that editors influence more people than professors, but in fact, the professors are the ones with the luxury to write books.  I get to sit on the bus and read them.  I do read many proposals before they become full-fledged books, and, interestingly, I get to discern how someone becomes an “expert.”  I worry a little about this latter point.  When it comes to religion, there are a few too many experts and dreadfully too few places for them to find gainful employment.  This is a volatile mix. I often run across religion experts who have professorships because they are of the right brand.  In a way that is almost inconceivable in any other profession, schools where religion is taught are actually allowed to discriminate.  This fact may even stretch out, in the case of some religions, to more objective fields.  Some religions teach that illness is spiritual rather than physical.  Some of them have medical schools, staffed by believers.

This comes back to the privileging of belief.  We all believe things, and most of us (if not all of us, when the lights are out) include some irrational things in that realm.  Beliefs can change, but not easily.  In the case of religions, most often we are taught our beliefs.  Sitting back and thinking about those truisms is the ultimate of academic enterprises, and yet few matters have a greater impact on society as a whole than the belief structures of people.  If you want to start a university for your brand of religion, after all, the law protects you if you keep your biases on your sleeve.  These people get to write books with the credibility that pathetic posers, like the current blogger, are doomed to lack.  You see, if someone is an expert, they have to have an institution to prove it.  That’s the way higher education works.

I read lots of stuff.  I sometimes think maybe I read a little too much because the ideas begin to affect my beliefs.  Nevertheless, it is a risk I’m willing to take.  It seems to me that if a religion is really as secure as they all pretend to be, you’d be willing to invite a few interlopers in your doors—a few wolves in wolves’ pelts.  If the sheep have to run, think of it as a chance to test their belief systems.  If the sheep overcome the wolves, then they will have earned the stars in their crowns.  Sometimes I am criticized for my liberal approach to things.  One thing my training has taught me, however, is that systems carefully reasoned through don’t shy away from challenges.  That’s a major difference on many belief-based structures.  Beliefs do not appreciate being challenged.  They want to be right.  But then, don’t we all?  It seems to me that the time for allowing prejudice against other religious views has outlived its usefulness.  If the truth is the truth, after all, it will be able to stand any fright that the wolves might bring.

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No Play-Thing

Childs_PlayPossession. It’s one of the scariest concepts in the religious arsenal. The idea that a person could be taken over by a different entity and surrender his or her selfhood to a malevolent saboteur is frightening indeed. Horror films have been deft at exploiting this. As a college student I was slow to watch the latest horror flicks. Some I’m only now beginning to find. Over the weekend I watched Child’s Play for the first time. Like most people who have some sense of popular culture I knew that Chucky was an evil doll, but I never really knew the backstory. Despite the utterly untenable hypothesis of the movie, it still manages to be scary in our CGI world, despite the bogus lightning. The frightening part comes from what is an admittedly creepy doll in the first place becoming possessed by a religious serial killer. Charles Lee Ray, named after three infamous assassins, displays facility with a religion that some identify as voodou, although that association comes primarily from the voodoo doll that Chucky uses to dispatch his mentor.

At least Child’s Play makes the effort to explain what forces exist that might bring plastic and stuffing to life. In true horror fashion, it is not the Christian god, but forces that are somehow more powerful, more malevolent. It would hardly behoove the maker of all the universe to inhabit a Cabbage Patch knockoff. The Lakeshore Strangler has been in training to cheat death and remain alive forever. He takes lessons from a mystical character whose religion is referred to only obliquely, yet whose efficacy is obvious in the malevolent toy. Willful suspension of belief is necessary to make this resurrection story plausible, but that disbelief must include belief in religious powers. The horns of this self-same dilemma hoist all religious believers in a scientific world.

Chucky is participating in one of the oldest of all religious traditions—death avoidance. Some of the earliest evidence that we have showing that hominids were developing religious sensibilities is the burial of the dead. There is really no reason to bury if we are only carrion like every other meat-based product. Whether it is out of fear or reverence, we turn to religion to assure us that there’s something more. It may not be scientific, but that’s largely the point. For many even today, a concluding scientific postscript leaves a body cold. Time for a leap of faith. Horror films are often decried as lowbrow and unsophisticated. Chucky, however, like many mythic monsters, is rapping his inhuman fingers on the door of religion. Specifically resurrection. Although in this case, it might be best to keep that door firmly closed.

Near Earth Objects

Even before the Chelyabinsk meteor, Time magazine had committed to the printers with a story on asteroid 2012 DA14. From our terribly parochial viewpoint, such cosmic invaders are in our airspace (or at least in our satellite zone), as if we owned the very heavens above us. They are somehow an affront to our religious sensibilities. Many religions revolve around a celestial orientation. We all know that God is “up there” and the Devil is “down there.” What we’re discovering “up there,” however, is scarier than the Devil for many people. Space rocks are just part of the debris from the messy business of universe creating. Although space may be mostly empty (but dark matter has us reevaluating even that), it is far from tidy. Rocks rain down on us every day, and our user-friendly atmosphere that we’ve polluted so badly still begrudgingly incinerates those that enter at the wrong angle, brightening many a night with spectacular meteors. I’ve even seen some bright ones while driving in traffic in New Jersey. Wondrous indeed.

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Back in seventh grade I did a science report on comets. This was a fascination that led me to take astronomy in my Sputnik-era high school—complete with planetarium—and in my older, more conservative college—sans planetarium. Comets were, until fairly recent times, religious harbingers. The Time story even has a detail of Giotto’s Adoration of the Magi from the early fourteenth century, complete with Halley’s Comet hovering overhead as the ersatz Star of Bethlehem. In a pre-Copernican universe signs in the sky had to be divine. There was no other logical way to explain them. Of course, in science class I stuck to the facts. As a religious kid, however, I knew there was something more to it.

Our skies are not our own. The universe isn’t here for us. These scientific revelations are frightening on a religious scale. We haven’t quite gotten to the point where we’re ready to let go of the Heaven above that no telescope can see. We don’t even have any way to spot hunks of rock the size of Chelyabinsk’s unbidden visitor with any kind of accuracy. We don’t even know how many there are. Before the second Russian explosion, Time prophetically noted that about a million stones of a hundred feet or more are near our planet and that one 150-footer could be 180 times more powerful than the bomb dropped on Hiroshima. Our recent brush with God’s dropped stone was only about 30 times the size of the terrors unleashed on Japan. According to ABC a Father Dimitri of Chelyabinsk said, “This event happened the day of the big Orthodox holiday that means meeting with God and this has to make people think.” I know I’m thinking. I sure hope his aim is good.

True Heroes

supergirls As a guy with a healthy sense of the weird,it strikes me as odd that rational people can suppose that we’ve solved all of life’s great mysteries. As a student of biology, chemistry, and physics in high school—and a reader of non-technical aspects of the same throughout my adulthood—it always seemed that there was an undefinable “something more.” Reading Jeffrey Kripal’s Mutants and Mystics led me to an interest in comic books. As a child I did not have many of them since we didn’t have much money to spend on luxuries. The few I had, however, were read and reread and reread, assaulting my imagination with endless possibilities, many of which defied everything I was to learn of biology, chemistry, and physics. My interest in feminism and new-found appreciation of the proto-graphic novel, led me to read Mike Madrid’s The Supergirls: Fashion, Feminism, Fantasy, and the History of Comic Book Heroines. As a boy surrounded with brothers, I clearly knew which comic books were for males. Madrid’s book delves into this super-hero world with the question of why females have always struggled to be taken seriously in this fantasy land.

Many of the characters explored in Supergirls were heroines I’d never encountered before. Madrid’s analysis often appears spot-on as he traces their histories through the decades as they mirror, and occasionally lead, society’s expectations of what women should be. The one that I had no trouble recognizing was Wonder Woman. And the reason for that was she used to have a TV show. Not mentioned by Madrid was the mighty Isis, also a heroine from television. She began as a character opposite Captain Marvel, and did not have her origin in a comic book. Isis was, of course, an ancient goddess, and as I learned from Supergirls, Wonder Woman was not far behind. The way that women could be as strong as men was to be divine. For human females, life was much rougher.

Wonder Woman, Madrid notes, was one of the Trinity of early, lasting comic book heroes. Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman are cast as the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, respectively. Like her theological counterpart, Wonder Woman is the most amorphous, least understood of the three. Her career and persona change over time, almost losing any kind of supernatural ability. Her origin story, however, began as a helper of oppressed women everywhere. Today we see Superman and Batman on the big screen, but Wonder Woman has fallen behind. Despite great strides, our society still isn’t ready to accept rescue of men at the hands of a woman. More’s the pity, because we clearly see the mess that masculine leadership has spawned. Mike Madrid has discovered a secret identity for our old foe, sexism. And it might take the world of comic books to help us see clearly that which mainstream analysis still denies.

Tunguska 2.0

The explosion of a meteor above Chelyabinsk on Friday immediately took me back to Tunguska five-score and five years ago. The Siberian Explosion, as we called it as kids, had captured my early imagination. An explosion that big, so long before nuclear weapons had been developed, and so long after the dinosaurs felt the wrath of an asteroid, fired my sense of wonder. The pictures of all those felled trees. Of course, the mystery helped as well. Some decades later, The X-Files revisited Tunguska, and the mania of my youth was back. There’s nothing like something incredibly massive to ignite the chariots of fire. The Chelyabinsk meteor is the largest object to strike the earth since the Tunguska event, and although at 500 kilotons of explosive power, it was about 60 times less potent than the earlier event, it does have many pondering the fragility of life on our little planet.

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For those less familiar with astronomy, the event was confused with the much hyped passage of asteroid 2012 DA14 which buzzed close enough to have had some fingers hovering above the retaliation button. The two unrelated events stand to underscore just how small we are in our tiny ripple of the Milky Way. Watching the many videos of the Chelyabinsk meteor, I ponder what might have happened had this been during the Reagan years and the delirious high point of Cold War paranoia—would any of us have been left here to read about it at all? Although ants, we think ourselves giants. Some speculate that if the dinosaurs hadn’t been wiped out by an asteroid or comet they may have evolved to intelligent beings. Perhaps they would have had a reptilian god. Based on body-mass ratios, that’d have been one huge deity!

So we’ve had a couple of near misses this week past. Chances are some day we’ll get hit. There will be those who call it an apocalypse, and others who will suggest it is some kind of cosmic justice. In reality, it is just what happens in a universe where we are but minuscule demigods in our own imaginations. Tunguska was a huge event, but it didn’t kill on the scale of the Haiti Earthquake or the Indian Ocean Tsunami. Such natural disasters make the insurance industry cry foul as they describe them as “Acts of God.” “Act of God” is legalese for anything outside human control. Giant rocks falling from the sky clearly fit into that category. Goliath, the biblical giant, was slain by a single smooth stone from a brook, according to the book of Samuel. We think we’re pretty big with our towers and our weapons and our internet. If God unleashes a big stone our way, as Friday’s events demonstrate, Goliath might have the last laugh.

Portrait of God as a Young Man

Famed swing state Ohio is back in the news with Jesus in the front lines. It was an unlikely setting to notice such a thing. I was sitting in a conference room at work, awaiting the start of a meeting. A laptop was set up with a projector, and the homepage cast upon the screen was msn.com. There, on the wall at work was Jesus’ name.

The story has to do with a public school in Jackson City. A student group had donated a portrait of Jesus to the school in 1947, but in a multicultural world the constitution sometimes has to take on the Prince of Peace.

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While the legal issues are thorny, I have an even more probing question to ask. What makes a portrait a religious object? There is a fair bit of dispute about the historical Jesus—who he really was, where he was from. Despite the sangfroid of the New Atheists, there is little reason to doubt that there was a historical person Jesus. If that is the case, what makes his picture any different than that of Woodrow Wilson or Ronald Reagan? Or Churchill, with his religious-sounding name? One could argue that we don’t know what Jesus looked like—and this is true—but neither could we really identify many historical figures before the advent of photography.

The making of a picture into a religious object comes down to intent. Intent on the part of those who hung it, and on the part of those who view it. The 1940s were a different era. The Second World War was just ended, America was proudly Christian after fighting for the cause of truth, justice, and, well, the American way. Could the school group have donated Jesus in that era as the portrait of a great man? Without supernatural implications? I suspect we all know the answer to that.

Fast forward a few decades. The world has changed drastically. We are multicultural. The internet entertains us with such stories as this. If not for the internet, and a casually chosen homepage, I would never have even heard of Jackson City, Ohio. Is it possible that we could look at a picture of Jesus in our day without religious adoration? Quite possibly. But the furor raised by the religious right every time a perceived slight stirs up the dust would seem to make such an association impossible. Any prominently displayed picture of Jesus in a government location, no matter how local, is perceived as a religious act. It seems that we’ve lost our ability to appreciate the wider realm of possibilities. And that is sad. Who was Jesus, really? Historians and theologians come to no consensus on the issue. One thing is for certain, he’s sure to set people against one another wherever he appears.

Implausible Deniability

Sandy gave us a little taste of dampness under the gunnel. You see, people live by the water because it beckons to us. That was actually Rachel Carson’s idea, but nevertheless, we do find ourselves drawn to the sea around us. Historically our great cities grew in the littoral because communication across the big water was, prior to jet travel and trans-oceanic cables, the best way to stay in touch. Have a business meeting in London, but live in New York? No problem. We can get you there in two-to-three weeks. And the ship sets sail. Since that day we’ve become more electronic. Those of us who experienced Sandy near New York City know that one of the biggest problems was that salt water and electrified trains don’t mix. Of course, conservative lobbies have insisted that Congress and the White House keep their eyes firmly shut about the possibility that a more unstoppable flood is coming. We may not need an ark, but we’re going to have to take some steps back.

A story on the Weather Channel shows the “smoking gun” of global warming. Oh wait, that’s just a myth. Industrialists tell us so. But what a devastating myth! The Gulf Stream waters of yore have kept the climate mild in northern latitudes. While in Scotland we spent a wonderful weekend with some friends on the Island of Arran in the Hebrides. Palm trees growing in Scotland? Yes! The warm Gulf Stream means that much of the British Isles remains relatively temperate despite their latitude. The Gulf Stream, due to climate change, is slowing. In less than a century, climatologists now predict, the oceans will rise three feet. Looks like I’ll need to wear my gaiters to work. We’ve known for about half of my life that we’ve been changing our environment. And not for the better. Those who are too wealthy stand to lose a little so we do what we can to protect them, the poor dears. The rest of us had better learn to swim.

We don’t worry when the people of some Indonesian island point out that their entire world may submerge. Put a little ocean water in the subway and, well, that’s an entirely other story. How are the peons to get to work? Let them wear hip-boots. Word from the top one percent is that there is no global warming. If the Gulf Stream is slowing down it’s because it’s lazy. What a moocher! Suppose it will be wanting a health plan next. That’s the problem with the weather—it changes like, uh, the weather. Unlike the minds of some people that are already made up and never change, no matter what the facts. When the one-percenters start speaking, I’m glad I’m wearing my hip-boots after all.

Where can I get me one of those?

Where can I get me one of those?

Grown up Fish

InnerFishEmbryonic recapitulation. That’s what it used to be called. I didn’t learn about this in biology class, but rather in the Creationist literature that challenged the very concept. I suppose those deep evolutionary roots are what led me to read Neil Shubin’s Your Inner Fish: A Journey into the 3.5-Billion-Year History of the Human Body. Not that anyone who’s considered the facts can question evolution, but this book nevertheless took me back along my own evolutionary descent from Fundamentalism to a reluctant rationalism. I recall the frequently repeated Fundie catch phrase, “no transitional forms.” Probably what they were looking for was a mermaid-like creature that was half reptile and half bird, divided down the middle. Even at a tender age, while accepting their rhetoric, I wondered why archaeopteryx didn’t qualify. A flying feathered lizard? Sounded pretty transitional to me. Shubin opens his fascinating account with the discovery of Tiktaalik, a transitional form in every sense of the word. Here is a fossil that shows the tell-tale limbs and organs of moving from fish to amphibian. Yes, Virginia, there is evolution.

Shubin doesn’t stop there, however. He traces the various features of human bodies back to our piscine ancestors. From gills to gonads, we are bipedal, air-breathing, mammalian fish. No surprises there, really. One gets the sense that Shubin’s book wouldn’t be such a wonder if there weren’t organized Creationists out there constantly challenging the obvious. All living things on this planet are clearly related. Some of the cousins may be very, very distant, but we are all part of the same family. This threatens Creationists and others who need to feel different, special. People are related to God, they suppose, in ways that mere animals are not. Biology gainsays that concept, so no matter how much evidence we might marshal, the Fundamentalist is duty-bound to reject it. We’re trying to break up a personal relationship here, after all.

While Shubin does a wonderful job of explaining whence our biological features, I was nevertheless heartened to read him referring to the essence of being human. Some scientists reject “essence” as a vague concept that can’t be examined in a laboratory. That may be true, but we all know what an essence is. As a concept it too has explanatory value. It would be very difficult to read Your Inner Fish and come out doubting evolution. At the same time, Shubin realizes that people write books, and fish do not. That’s not to say that we’re superior to our fishy family, but that we are different. We have our own essences. That doesn’t mean we were created this way—maybe we’ve just evolved with them. Either way, Shubin is charming romp though 3.5 billion years of our history.