A Weird Resurrection

Driving through an unfamiliar city doesn’t allow for much time to appreciate what you’re seeing. Back in February when I was visiting Austin, Texas for the first time, it was 65 degrees outside. Given the irascible temperatures in New Jersey this year, that felt like summer. Of course, the locals were bundled up since it was, for Texans, unseasonably cool. The weather has been off this year. Of course, we know who to blame. Cthulhu. As I was trying to find the University of Texas with an impatient GPS as my co-pilot, I spied someone walking down the street wearing a Cthulhu ski mask. I can’t express how badly I wanted to pull aside and snap a photo, but pulling aside in a strange city can lead to unwanted adventures. Especially when your co-pilot is an opinionated GPS. I’ve been to north Philly and the south side of Chicago. I didn’t want to take any chances that Austin might hide such districts.

Cthulhu mask

H. P. Lovecraft, like most original thinkers before the computer age, was ignored in his lifetime. I wonder what he would have felt if he had divined that the internet would one day bring him world-wide fame. His writings, of course, had been appreciated before the computer was invented, but the web has nearly as much Cthulhu as it does LOL Cats. Even those who’ve never spent a dark night curled up with the Necronomicon recognize Cthulhu’s octopoid visage when they see it. Davy Jones of the Pirates of the Caribbean fame borrowed his unforgettable face from the Old Gods discovered by Lovecraft. Cthulhu has become a cultural icon of the chaotic, the cosmic, and the somewhat comic.

In a strange way Cthulhu stands for resurrection. In Lovecraft’s mythological world Cthulhu lies under the sea, dead but dreaming. A dying and rising god of utter terror. Lovecraft, an atheist, built his fiction nevertheless around a series of gods. Today his stories are noted for their moody portrayal of improbable worlds, and his storytelling has had an incredible influence on many of those who attempt to generate worlds that are fantastic but somehow still believable. Cthulhu’s resurrection, however, is not to be desired. Even if these he represents life anew, it is a life humans could not bear. In a deeper sense yet it is Lovecraft himself who has experienced a kind of resurrection. A writer forgotten in his lifetime, but rediscovered when it was too late for him to realize just what he’d created, the true master of Cthulhu, I like to believe, lies dead but dreaming, and he has already revealed that he will rise and the masses will tremble.

OMG, MOMA!

New York City can wear you out, spiritually. I suppose that’s why so many people go there, to face the challenge. Thanks to Target, Friday evenings the Museum of Modern Art gives out free tickets for its world-class collection. We knew that Vincent van Gogh’s The Starry Night was there, and had planned on seeing it sometime. Well, Friday of spring break offered an opportunity, so last night, with several hundred, maybe a few thousand, others, we made our way to MOMA. We arrived around 5 p.m. and found the line literally around the block. It wasn’t as cold as it had been, so we braved the hour to wait our turn. Yes, it was worth it. As my wife noted, it was very good to see so many people wanting to see art. Manhattan offers many, many other diversions for a Friday night, but hundreds opted for art. I had long anticipated this. Since my school days I’d seen replications of many of the paintings in the museum, and it was inspiring to be packed in so close with so many people wanting to be close to art. Hoping, somehow, to commune with the emotion in us all seeking such profound expression.

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It was a little difficult to commune, however, with so many other religious seekers. This is a religious experience, to touch the soul of another. Standing inches away from The Starry Night, I could almost feel the desperate, longing hands of van Gogh stroking out a manic sky, surreal and ethereal. I could almost hear the echo of his spirit. Were it not for the many crowding next to the painting to be photographed with it. Fellow spiritual seekers, I hope. Van Gogh was a troubled soul, as we all know. How many artists take their own lives after reaching out to touch what so few of us even dare. A sadness so profound as he climbed down that mountain. The starry night is the photograph of a suffering soul.

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Then there was Edvard Munch’s classic, The Scream. On a limited engagement at MOMA, facing, just across the hall, van Gogh’s Starry Night. Was there ever such depth of soul in such close proximity? It was there that I began to question the faith that I had hoped impelled the countless masses yearning to observe free. MOMA allows photographs, and cameras, cell phones, and iPads were ubiquitous. To reach The Scream was to endure a crunch of strangers’ bodies pressing you forward, cell phones held aloft, illicit flashes popping, worried looking docents. I was anticipating another spiritual moment when I heard a woman say that she had to get close for a picture. “This is going to be my status!” she cried. So this is modern spiritually, the life splayed on Facebook, bragging about bagging Munch. Yes, Edvard, I am screaming too.

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Good, Friday

Riding public transit sometimes turns into a religious experience. Various bus drivers will wish passengers a “blessed day” as they pull into the Port Authority Bus Terminal—not that I can blame them, after the traffic they face daily, for taking a spiritual breather. Lately, though, I have been wished a happy Easter by the driver. Ironically, I must note, because people of many faith traditions ride the bus. Not all are Easter riders. Just yesterday a Rastafari stood before me in line. I’m regularly joined by Hindus, Jews, and maybe even a Mormon or two (who can tell?). Holy Week in New York is a surreal experience. I chatted with some co-workers where the topic changed effortlessly from their experiences of Passover to others’ experiences of Easter. Religion is alive and well in the Big Apple, but it is mostly an afterthought to the real business of making money. That’s what we’re all here for, after all.

Money, according to the good book, is inimical to the lifestyle of faith. I must have a little too much faith, I guess, since I have so precious little money. Nothing throws that into such sharp relief as looming tuition bills. You see, I tried “to fight the good fight” only to learn that there’s no way to win it without playing by the entrepreneur’s rules. Filling out the FAFSA over the smoldering ruins of my “earning years” was a distinctly sobering experience. I went into higher education because I believed in it—there’s that pesky faith again. The things you believe in, however, have a way of turning on you. I suppose that’s an appropriate reflection for Good Friday.

It’s hard to be an idealist in a world where people say, “you just need someone to give you a chance,” and then turn their backs on you. So as I’m walking across town, thinking about my blessed day, I notice that we’re all in this together. Except some of us. In the idealist world, those who want it the most sometimes win it. Those who play by the rules. I had no Harvard aspirations, just a reasonable job in a little college would suit me fine. A place to think that doesn’t have wheels and aluminum sides and seat forty-nine other lost souls. But for those who have less, even the little they have will be taken from them. That’s biblical too. Higher education is one of the greatest gifts we can give our children, but it easily joins hands with Judas Iscariot. It is Good Friday, according to some. Others just call it a blessed day.

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A Scream or Two

Scream2A few weeks back, for my weekend fix, I watched Scream. I hadn’t seen the movie when it came out in 1996, but having seen so many references to Ghost Face I felt I was missing out on something. I was disappointed, however, at the relative lack of religious imagery or dialogue in the film. Such motifs are so common in horror films that I’ve come to depend on them. In fact, there was nothing supernatural in the movie at all. This weekend I decided to follow it up with the sequel that many claim is better than the original, Scream 2. It is the same self-aware exposé of horror gimmicks and tropes, providing several clever frights along the way. But this time there was more religion. Not that it was overt or central, but it was clearly there. My thesis was bolstered a little bit since the storyline felt the need to come back and pick up what was mostly lacking from the first film.

Sidney draws first blood in the sequel by comparing a sorority to a religion. Not much, but a start. We find out that Sid has taken up drama in college, where she has been cast in the role of Cassandra, the prophet of Troy cursed with never being believed, although always being right. In the truly disturbing scene from the play we’re shown, Zeus himself comes down and points a godly finger at the frightened girl. The real religious imagery, however, comes toward the end of the movie when Derek is tied up, cruciform style, by his frat brothers for giving away his letters. He plays the role of the sacrificial lamb as Sid comes face-to-face with the Ghost Face duo, and when his dead body is lifted up on the stage prop, the camera angle reveals either an angel or an ascending deity, arms spread out as if on a cross. Life has been laid down for life, a distinctly religious theme.

What would horror be without resurrection? The villain always comes back from the dead, having easy access to that which is denied the regular mortal. This factor alone suggests that most horror films are transmuted religious fulfillment wishes. We live in a time when religion seems to have lost its transcendent power, and yet we long for resurrection. Horror movies tell us it is available, but at a very steep price. Perhaps it is an unintentional motif, but it is a pattern that occurs so often that it feels integral to the very conception of the scary movie. That which we long for the most is the most terrifying. Horror films aren’t for everyone, but their popularity shows, on some level, that our society hasn’t given up on religion just yet. Scream 2, the resurrection of a wry, witty, and somewhat gory original, brings fear and religion together once more. Religion, like the horror villain, never really goes away.

Mind Your Cosmos

MindandCosmosSomething on your mind? How often do we bother to think clearly about our minds? One of the most dispiriting concepts ever invented is the idea that even our minds are merely part of a reductionistic, mechanistic universe. All those beautiful, frightening, sublime, and mundane thoughts are just noise, clutter. An inevitable side-effect of all that electro-chemical activity in the gray matter. Nothing more. It is an idea to which it is very difficult to warm. Philosopher Thomas Nagel, however, doesn’t use a soft approach to the concept of mind in his Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature is Almost Certainly False. This is not an easy read, but it rewards the reader well.

Some, I suspect, will accuse Nagel of being a closet creationist, but he addresses that concern up front. Nagel is an atheist, but he recognizes that the creationists have raised some valid points about the explanatory value of a materialistic, reductionistic view of the universe. Nagel, like all careful thinkers, realizes that the fact of evolution is not to be disputed. The mechanism driving mutations, however, is open to some speculation. I’ve read many books that suggest we are but (in a more than angst-ridden Kansas) dust in the wind. Particles and reactions and nothing more. That love you feel when your heart is thumping wildly over that special someone? Mere chemistry. And not the kind that implies a transcendent state. Just lab-coat chemistry. I read Nagel because this kind of reductionism just doesn’t fit reality as I’ve experienced it. I’m no physicist, but I’m all I’ve got. And my reason tells me that there’s something more too it.

Nagel approaches the issue by examining the origins of mind. Whence does consciousness emerge? Using precise, carefully selected reasoning, he demonstrates that there is a chance that consciousness is inherent in this universe we inhabit. Just as bodies are built of cells, and cells are built of proteins built of molecules built of atoms, the mind could be constructed of components as well. I can’t replicate Nagel’s elegance of expression, but his suggestion that we may be part of a universe beginning to awake is as much poetry as it is logic. And that, more than anything else, is a reflection on the complexity of being human. We are meaning-seeking creatures. Being told that we’re mechanistic automatons is like slamming a door in a two-year old’s face. If I am merely particles and tiny jolts of electricity, I’m going to take the particles that make Nagel’s book with me as I try to reconcile myself to a universe where nothing is really what it seems.

Infinite and Expanding

Show me the birth certificate. Whoa! It seems the universe padded the figures by about 80 million years. To you and me that’s 80 million years. To old universe, it’s merely the blink of a cosmic eye. The news has been humming with the results of the European Space Agency’s Planck Space Telescope picture of the microwave background radiation of the universe. From what I can see, the universe forgot to say cheese. Unless, of course, it’s swiss cheese. Further and further science confirms our big bang of a beginning, and, quite literally, it has been downhill from there.

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Cosmology is the most theological of the sciences. I’m sure many cosmologists would demand to differ on that point, but the inexorable draw to find out how it all began had its humble origins in religious thought. The mythologies of the Sumerians, Babylonians, Egyptians, Israelites, among many, many others, explored options for how the universe (as they knew it) might have begun. The curiosity is deeply embedded in the human psyche—we want to know our origins. Physicists, of course, play by the rules. Astrophysicists use incredibly complex formulas that all point to a big bang that nobody has ever heard. The inevitable question is, however, what happened before that? Could it be there was no before? A time before time? It seems to me a religious question.

The Planck telescope tells us that our middle-aged universe also has more girth than it admitted previously. No surprises there, after all the theory of the universe’s growth is called “inflation.” I sympathize. All of this information is wonderful news on an intergalactic scale, but it hasn’t solved many of our problems out here in this corner of the cosmos. Reading the rest of the news headlines, after I wipe away the tears, I see that our universe really is showing its age. We are older than we thought, but are we wiser? Scientists are examining fossilized light with glee, but we still can’t figure out that if a guy loves another guy (or girl another girl) that it’s just another instance of what happens after the big bang. We can’t accept that our industrial greed has messed up the weather—has anybody been outside lately? We know that one percent control almost all the wealth and yet we buy lottery tickets and hope for the best. And these are only a few in a long series of echoes that can’t seem to allow some people to think clearly in this girth-challenged, more-than-ancient universe. It must be a religious issue after all.

RoboStop

Although few objects are as soulless and mechanistic as robots, I still feel strangely emotional about them. Had my daughter not been interested in them, I would never have become involved with FIRST Robotics, even serving for a year as an officer in the Team 102 foundation to help raise the thousands of dollars needed to run such a club. Like most people with a background deep in the humanities, I would’ve not pondered too deeply how much of ourselves we put into our machines. Right now I’m reevaluating that hypothesis.

No one doubts that an artist or musician puts her- or himself into her or his work. Those who do it best are most highly valued (after we let the artist die off, usually, after having lived a difficult life). We admire those who are able to catch the human spirit in such forms of expression while many scientists inform us that there really is no spirit at all—it is just chemical reactions and electrical circuits in the soft tissue of our brains. When we see the Mona Lisa, or hear Beethoven’s Seventh, however, we know they must be wrong. What we make becomes part of us. And I’m thinking that may apply to robots too.

I’ve just attended my last FIRST Robotics competition. It is difficult to convey, if you’ve never been, what such an event is like. Hundreds of screaming high school students excited about engineering and the thrill of competition. A playing field is constructed to exacting specifications and six teams in two alliances facing off their creations to emulate human—sometimes superhuman—behavior. All the while the thumping rock beat of loud music and the play of colored lights give the event the emotional charge of a football game and homecoming dance rolled into one. Only you really don’t have to move very much at all.

I’m not a robot designer or builder. It is difficult to imagine anything further from my training (except perhaps accounting). Still, I’m a little let down after my last FIRST competition. Four years ago it seemed so novel, and there have been some difficult moments along the way. I’ve seen kids build robots that play soccer, hang inflatable tubes, play basketball, shoot frisbees, climb towers, climb poles, and do many other seemingly impossible tasks. I’ve been up before dawn to ride a chilly school bus across the state to compete, coming home in time to fall in bed to get up early for work the next morning. But most of all, I’ve seen kids putting themselves into more than machines. I’ve seen them putting themselves into a team. Although we didn’t win this year, and next year I probably will be consumed with other concerns, I am proud to have been, in my small way, a part of Team 102. Way to go, Gearheads! Maybe robots do have souls after all.

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Palming the Truth

For some today is Palm Sunday. For others it is not. And I’m not referring to those outside the Christian camp. For many Eastern Orthodox Christians, Lent is just beginning as others prepare to celebrate Easter. Such divisions in the priesthood of all believers. The message was brought home to me when a friend emailed me an article from Archon News headlined “For the first time since the Great Schism, Ecumenical Patriarch to attend Pope’s inaugural mass.” For those of you outside the thrill-a-millennium Catholic-Orthodox drama, it might help to know that about the middle of the eleventh century, Christianity experienced its first major schism. The issues were insignificant to all but those who had far too much time on their hands, but the list of grievances grew and festered for centuries until a clean-shaven Pope and heavily bearded Patriarch stopped inviting each other to one another’s parties. It seems that Pope Francis may be seeing the beginning of the end of that particular tiff.

Christianity is one of the most fragmented faiths in the world. Tens of thousands, yea, myriads of denominations exist. And if some of them got together and compared notes, I suspect they’d be shocked to learn that they are just the same as some of the others. Religious belief is deeply personal and highly individualistic. Belonging to a religious body is more a matter of commitment than it is a full agreement on every point—rather like a marriage, I suppose. The funny thing is people join religions that they like, suspecting that these copacetic beliefs will somehow save them from Hell. You can literally write your own ticket to Heaven, based on this system. No religion is right because all religions are right. And we wonder why people are eager to kill one another over matters of belief.

So, is it Palm Sunday or not? It depends entirely on your point of view. Roman Catholicism, followed by many Protestant groups, considers the first Sunday after the first full moon after the Vernal Equinox to be Easter. Never mind that all this equinox stuff smacks of its Pagan forebears—even Easter is named after the Germanic goddess Ostara. I can’t pretend to know how various Orthodox groups calculate their Easter, but the fact is that both dates can’t be right. Unless, of course, one of them is really a celebration of Ostara. Or maybe both are. And if it comes to a matter of debate, it will mean the birth of even more denominations.

Ostara laughs to see such sport

Ostara laughs to see such sport

A Goy in the City

Getting across Midtown Manhattan quickly during rush hour involves a kind of algorithm. That means my route to and from work each day changes depending on whether I catch that light at Eighth Avenue or Third Avenue. This past week my algorithm took me down 42nd Street on the way home. As I walked past a group of Orthodox Jews handing out leaflets, they singled me out and stopped me to ask if I was Jewish. I said “No,” but took their literature anyway. At first blush, it may seem odd to be mistaken as Jewish by some local experts (New York City has its fair share), but then again, maybe not. My brother tells me he gets asked the same question. Our great-great-grandparents left Germany in the 1820s and bore the ambiguous surname Tauberschmidt. By my great-grandparent’s generation they seemed to have been Lutheran, but before that? Hey, maybe this could explain a lot. Not to stereotype, but I do have the incessant angst that many Jewish characters exhibit in Woody Allen movies. Probably it’s my imagination. I thought it was cool to be mistaken for a “minority.” I felt, for a moment, like I belonged.

Reflecting on this incident (which made my day, by the way), I ask myself what it means to be part of a religion that has become a culture. The academic lingo for this is “cultural Jews” (in this case), but there are definitely “cultural Christians” as well. I suspect most religions have their cultural commandos. Part of the dynamic at work here is that although the world is very religious, it’s not really that religious. Most religious folks have an emotional connection to their tradition that may be, in fact, cultural rather than, for lack of a better word, spiritual. A person who is deeply religious often runs afoul of life in the everyday world. There is a sinful plethora of distractions. Those truly concerned about their religions often find themselves employed by them.

Cultural religions give the world a great deal of color. People flock to St Patrick’s Day parades when rivers are dyed green and everyone wants to be part Irish (and there is a genetic bit of this in my personal mix as well). Where would December be without Christmas and its attendant holidays? Even bunnies like colorful eggs in the springtime, so I’m told. Do any of these things make people religious Christians? I suspect few would argue that they do. I’m stretching Rousseau‘s concept of civil religion a bit tight here, but degrees of religiousness fall along a continuous spectrum rather than appearing in sharply distinguished colors. Cultural faiths are generally accidents of birth. It’s up to the individual how seriously to take it. And sometimes even the faithful misidentify one of their own.

Happy Passover to my Jewish siblings!

Happy Passover to my Jewish siblings!

Gods in Spandex

OurGodsWearSpandexOne thing leads to another. Reading Jeffrey Kripal’s Mutants and Mystics stirred an interest in comic books that I hadn’t felt since before my college days. Often excoriated as puerile, escapist doggerel for pre-pubescent boys, comics have grown to be respected members of adult society. I often wonder what the draw might be. Hollywood has certainly cashed in on it with any number of blockbuster flicks each year coming from the brains of the comic book writers and artists. So I picked up the quirky book by Christopher Knowles and Joseph Michael Linsner entitled Our Gods Wear Spandex: The Secret History of Comic Book Heroes. Reading it was kind of like looking in a mirror that has been buried in dust for a few decades. I hadn’t realized that my tastes in childhood comics was a reflection of a longing for the divine world with healthy doses of science fiction, and even H. P. Lovecraft, thrown in along the way. Knowles ties in a remarkable breadth of material to demonstrate that our superheroes are, in the final analysis, gods. That point may be taken in any number of ways.

The academic world suffers from a fear of respectability. That may seem a strange assertion, but I’ve spent a great deal of my life among academics and I know that many of them are insecure and tentative. Does all this reading, writing, and analysis ever get read by anybody? Does anybody take me seriously? Academics are haunted types. So when a subject as vulgar as comic books arises, scholars are reluctant to touch it. It might look like we actually enjoy reading the funnies. Still, popular culture has demonstrated an unexpected depth to much that we read in the strip world. As Knowles points out, a deep undercurrent of the occult and esotericism runs through many hero story lines. Several heroes began their lives as classical gods, only to assume the spandex and become incarnate humans with special powers we long to have ourselves. We would fly, if we were given the chance.

Our Gods Wear Spandex may never be viewed as an academic book by most. It has too much visual interest and not enough recondite footnotes. All the same, it is a profound look at what people really desire. We worship gods because of their special powers. If God were one of us with our humiliating weaknesses and limitations, would we ever worship him or her? Of course not. We only seek to appease those who are stronger than we are. Entire governments and ecclesiastical bodies are built on that very principle. Heroes are like us. Mortal, and yet, with something more. They die. But like the gods, they can come back. Reading Knowles it becomes clear just how much religious thought pulses through the veins of the comic book world. We may be grown up and sophisticated. We may have left behind childish things. But when our backs are to the wall, who doesn’t secretly wish they were Wonder Woman or Superman? And maybe that wish is a prayer.

Free Think Ing

It is not exactly pride that I feel when I see my undergraduate college featured in a Chronicle article entitled “Group Aims to Help Conservative Parents Counter ‘PC Indoctrination’ at Colleges.” I almost feared to scroll down the page. Yes, good old Grove City College has to thrust its manly credentials into the face of reason once again. The problem is that what such conservative groups decry as “indoctrination” is, in reality, critical thinking. It took me a long time to learn this distinction. I grew up in a conservative family, but I didn’t choose Grove City because of its flaming commitment to sixteenth-century values. I chose Grove City because it was a selective, intellectually honest school close to home. Being a first generation college student, I had no family tradition on which to draw. Guidance counselors didn’t know what to do with a religious kid who seemed to have some smarts. Other colleges seemed so far away. I didn’t even know what I wanted to study. You see, being raised in humble circumstances you learn to react to the many unpleasantries that life throws at you and there really isn’t time to plan out a future. It never works out that way in any case. I felt driven, but I didn’t know where I was going. Some day I hope to find out.

In the meanwhile, Grove City College has grown even more reactionary than when I was there in the 1980s. The Chronicle article states that “Conservatives have long complained about a perceived liberal bias in higher education,” and that Jim Van Eerden, an “entrepreneur in residence,” (shudder!) at Grove City has started the ironically named “FreeThinkU” to counter the liberalities students receive in school. Talk about your mixed messages! I wonder if Van Eerden has ever considered that Free Thinking has a long association with the very progress he abhors. Free thinkers gave us the gifts of evolution, rational thought, and for a while anyway, free love. Free thought gave us Kate Chopin, J. D. Salinger, and Margaret Atwood. They literally gave us the moon and have landed our probes on Mars. Somewhere lost in space a metal plaque is spinning in infinity with a naked couple and directions to planet Earth. I think the mis-named FreeThinkU might be better rechristened as Don’tUThink.

Higher education has a long, long history with religious thinking. Early universities were often outgrowths of theological colleges. Over the centuries, as our thinking matured, the ways of the past were recognized for what they were—outdated, short-sighted, unchanging for the sake of being unchanging. The reality that meets our eyes through the lenses of logic sometimes claims beehive hairdos and horn-rimmed glasses and greased back business haircuts as its victims. The earth is warming up. We did share a common ancestor with the apes. Our universe is even larger than we ever thought. And yet “FreeThinkU” suggests that we need to set the clock back a little. Maybe just a couple of centuries, but enough to hold our kids in the twilight of misperception. Progress has to be more than raping the earth and getting rich. Free thinking has to be a willingness to use the minds we have. I wonder what the aliens will say when they land here, our Pioneer 10 plaque in hand. If they land in Grove City, I suspect, they might feel they were sold a false bill of goods.

From the alumni mag; think about it...

From the alumni mag; think about it…

Sacred Sexism

holymisogyny How terrifying to observe religion from the eyes of women! In the monotheistic traditions it begins as early as Genesis 2 and continues unbroken through to the twenty-first century. While the origin of such views seems a mystery, they may be partially understood by reading April DeConick’s Holy Misogyny: Why the Sex and Gender Conflicts in the Early Church Still Matter. Not that anyone fully comprehends the insidious idea that women are somehow less than men, but DeConick offers some insight into the issue. She suggests that sacred misogyny is, like much of life, an embodiment issue. The monotheistic traditions from the beginning have had trouble with women’s bodies. Men can’t control their urges and blame the victim. That is over-simplifying, I know, but the basic gist is about right. What can’t be missed from reading Holy Misogyny is that the idea has embarrassingly deep roots in religious thought.

The Bible starts out pretty fair. Except from the beginning the masculine pronoun is used for God, even though theologians from very early days declared God neither male nor female. How do you believe that an “it” really cares for you? Wants the best for you? Loves you? We are gender embodied. We want to know who it is that’s loving us. Genesis 1, on the human level, has man and woman created together on the same day, at the same time. The essence of their embodiment appears to be divine: “in the image of God created he him, male and female created he them.” “Human” is gendered humanity. But then the apple falls. We turn the page to find that the not yet monotheistic religion of the Bible is already pointing sticky fingers at Eve. I know that I can’t read Tertullian without wanting to hide my face when he castigates women as the source of evil.

Holy Misogyny is a disturbing book. It should be. What it does demonstrate, however, is that a wide variety of opinions and options existed for early Christianity when it came to the perception of women. Some of the Gnostic sects of Christianity came much closer to a kind of equality, but they lost out to an unremittingly masculine “orthodoxy.” The Bible itself, although written in a patriarchal world, is an ambiguous document. At points even Paul seems to indicate the genders are equal in God’s eyes, but then, he (or someone writing in his name) tells women to keep quiet in the church. Ask your husband at home. I’ve talked to a lot of church guys in my time, and Paul, I have to contest you here. Women who want to get proper instruction in matters of the soul—or of the body—would be better off reading DeConick than asking their husbands. We’ve got two millennia of unfortunate history to prove the point.

AP Physics

AP Physics. Few words strike terror into high school students like these initials and scientific surname. As a student I didn’t really comprehend AP, and never took any Advanced Placement courses, but I enjoyed physics. It was by far my favorite science class. Even as a Fundamentalist, I saw that here was the explanation for the entire universe, as we knew it. Laws deduced by people far smarter than I could even dream of being could explain everything. But then Heisenberg. And Schrödinger. And quantum mechanics. I remember being taught that nothing was smaller than an atom. (Primarily school teachers in the early ‘60s can easily be forgiven the generality.) Still, on my own I read about protons and neutrons and electrons with wonder. When physics and chemistry brought these to the level of reality, it was like we really understood that each atom was like a solar system and boy didn’t it look intelligently designed! But then we looked closer. Quarks, in a Life-Saver array of juicy flavors, string theory, and the God particle itself, the Higgs boson, coyly showed their elusive faces and physics got weirder and weirder.

Edinburgh does physics (and God) proud

Edinburgh does physics (and God) proud

When my daughter told me about AP Physics recently, I was reacquainted with this world where apparently conscious beings have their choice about reality. The observer bends the results of the quantum experiment. And yes, particles can be two places simultaneously. When a friend pointed me to an article on Quantum Reality in The Waking Times, I was ready to throw open the doors of perception and celebrate life in a universe so strange that the very concept of reality itself is up for grabs. Some physicists now believe the entire physical universe is constructed of energy and that it flashes into and out of existence at a staggering speed that makes me feel a little perpetual-motion sick. Reality is, literally, what we make it.

I have to admit just a little bit of pride on the part of having chosen to study religion here. The more we learn about the quantum world, the more religious it becomes. There will be hard-core reductionists who dispute this, I know. Those who’ve spent any time among the mystics, however, will know what I mean. Back beyond the singularity the laws of physics are so stretched and protracted that even Stephen Hawking can’t sort them all out. And we find ourselves daily living in a world that we help create, on a sub-atomic level. Reality may not be what it seems. I learned this in high school physics. Now that my brain has ossified into patterns that don’t admit much of calculus or accounting any more, I’m beginning to realize that physics is suggesting that reality may be consciously constructed after all. Only this time we’re the gods. And that’s a really weird concept.

Blob Blog

Those who actually know something about movies occasionally complain that Hollywood seems to provide us with diminishing returns. How many movies have been remade? Can anyone even count all the sequels, prequels, and just plan quels? A similar trend is evident in publishing. A teen-vampire novel takes off and every publisher faces a twilight of the profits if it doesn’t spin off its own version. Sometimes I end up becoming familiar with a movie through its remake before ever viewing the original. The Blob is one example of this. I’ve seen the thirty-year remake 1988 version a few times. Just this weekend I saw the original 1958 version for the first time. It seems to me that teen movies of the late fifties and early sixties tried a little too hard to get the snappy, sassing dialogue of teens on the brink of the incredible cultural changes that were about to take effect after the extreme conservatism of the McCarthy Era. At times it is so hip that I can hardly stand it.

The_Blob_posterThe Blob falls into that category. A young Steve McQueen trades ripostes with his chums who think a drag race and a Bela Lugosi movie with your gal are pretty daring behaviors. Buried in all that innocence, however, I found a hidden warning tone. When I watch scary movies, I always keep an eye out for religious themes. Sometimes they fail to materialize. The Blob is about as secular as they come. I didn’t even spot a church or a priest (unlike the 1988 remake) in the typical American town. Just a bunch of kids that, Archie-like, try to convince the adults that they’re serious. A blob from space really is loose in town, and nobody has an idea how to stop it. All the adult men wear ties and the ladies all wear dresses. It is a world that follows the rules.

What of this warning tone I mentioned? Well, the blob itself is, apart from its disruptive raison-d’être, hardly more threatening than the stifling culture it attacks. It can’t be shot or burned, and nobody has any other ideas. It is unstoppable. Except for cold. And here’s the chilling part. As the carbon-dioxide drenched blob is airlifted to the Arctic by the military, Lieutenant Dave declares the world safe once more. Steve (Andrews, i.e., McQueen) chimes in with, “Yeah, as long as the Arctic stays cold.” The film ends with a trademark horror question-mark (this one literal) as the blob is parachuted onto a snow-covered landscape. Global warming was a future monster in 1958. The optimistic world could see nowhere but forward. Now, over 50 years later, our future looks a lot less cold. With politicians and some religious leaders decrying global warming as just another liberal myth, we might do well to remember The Blob. Something up there on our melting ice caps is waiting for us to return to the 1950s to begin its sequel of terror.

Next to Godliness

Catholics, secularists, and even a Pharaoh or two. Loud, pounding music. Dancing teenagers. It must be FIRST Robotics season again. Although I’m ambivalent about the implications of a world filled with robots, I can’t help but be impressed by what high school students can do when they are mentored so closely by adults eager to share the tricks of the trade. If you’re not familiar with FIRST Robotics, here are the basics: each January a new game objective is released. Participating high schools throughout the world have six weeks to plan, design, construct, and program a robot to perform the tasks spelled out. Since this is a busy time of year for many schools, dedicating extra hours to building a robot leads to complaints and loss of sleep—maybe a skipped supper or two. When they come together on the playing field, however, all that is forgotten and the wonder is that kids, who are often disparaged in our society, have managed to construct a working, complex machine capable of tasks impossible for many adults (for example, doing chin-ups).

Every year I can’t help but think how like a religious service these events are. The robots are like deities to be served and the technology flits about like mechanized angels. There is an increasingly complex hierarchy of officials telling you what you can’t do (now this is beginning to feel like work!). At the end of the day, however, the kids get to be the stars in a competition that puts brains over brawn. And the robots are treated with extreme deference, because we know that we wouldn’t stand a chance if they had a will anything like the deities of yore.

The religious imagery, however, is never absent. Technology represents humans doing things without divine intervention. These are empirically devised devices, performing according to the laws of physics. And yet, teams from Catholic high schools, bearing mythologically-laden names, join in the world where no gods need apply. Robots, as initially named by Karel Čapek, were human servants, the ultimate in godliness—making images in our likeness to do our bidding. And yet we can’t escape the language of religion when thinking about our own creations. The fascination applies to non-parochial schools as well, with some teams claiming names echoing themes from holy writ. Creating autonomous beings is next to godliness. We make our own future, and, god-like, we hope that nothing goes wrong.

Humans and machines

Humans and machines