Wars and Holy Wars

An article by James P. Byrd, promoting his new book Sacred Scripture, Sacred War: The Bible and the American Revolution recently appeared in the Washington Post. Byrd asks a very relevant question in our era: “Was the American Revolution actually a holy war?” He suggests that perhaps it should be interpreted so. The reason is straightforward enough—our nation, our culture in the United States, is so deeply steeped in scripture that even our Deist founders knew their Bibles better than many preachers today do. Byrd suggests, in his article, that people who believed in the separation of church and state could still have a deep sense of divine mission, and a belief that their war for freedom was a divine cause. Early state leaders were not anti-religious, nor über-religious. It is a balance that we would benefit from regaining.

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I guess I’ve seen enough political shenanigans to realize that such posturing as the Tea Party and the Religious Right or Moral Majority present are deeply cynical. The use religion as a platform to achieve political ends while conveniently slashing and burning huge swaths of biblical reasoning leaves many questions in its wake. Were such motives sincere, I would expect a lot more turning of the other cheek, and walking the second mile uncoerced. I suspect there would be fewer hungry people and even fewer living in positions of extreme wealth and power. In short, without the agenda of political religion, I suspect we would be a more Christian nation.

War is difficult to justify from a strong ethical stance, as most ethicists know. Our founders decided to go to war against what they believed was unfair oppression by a more powerful nation. This takes on the cast of a holy war because people were being oppressed. The pre-emptive strikes were throwing crates of tea into Boston Harbor, and yet the more advanced nation refused to lessen the pressure. In the Bible, Pharaoh declared the Israelites should make bricks without straw, and we all know where that got him. Or we would know, were we as literate as our forebears were. Freedom was considered a sacred trust. We live in a time when trust is at a premium. You can’t fly or surf the internet without being watched in intimate detail. There is no talk of holy wars, it seems, since the sacred has no place in a society that does not promote the concept of liberty with all the risks and benefits it entails.

Stone Age Henge

At a hotel during a recent excursion, I saw a National Geographic (I think) special on Gobekli Tepe (this is the fate of those of us kept from a daily sustenance of academic listservs bearing the most exciting news). Gobekli Tepe is an archaeological site in Turkey, discovered several years ago by Klaus Schmidt of the German Archaeological Institute. It is an odd site, dating back to some 11,000 years ago, that consists of megalithic (big stone) constructions earlier than Stonehenge or the great pyramids of Egypt, both dating from the Bronze Age, roughly. The complex of odd buildings seems to be religious in function because they bear no practical purpose, and the implications of the site are that our earliest steps towards civilization have been misinterpreted from the beginning. We have been taught that domestication of plants and farm animals led to fixed centers of living. Gobekli Tepe suggests that religion led to settled life and farming came later.

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The implications of this are rather startling for those of us who’d been working on the assumption that religion developed as a way of keeping the gods happy after people had the luxury of surplus food brought on by agriculture. It turns out that hunter-gatherers learned to live in settled locations because of religion. That is, religion, instead of being just another component of culture, is what led to culture in the first place. In a climate where the most vocal intellectuals insist that religion must be shut down, chopped off at the roots, and burned in the oven of rationality, we see that none of us would be enjoying our urban lifestyles if religion hadn’t brought us together in the first place.

There is no doubt that religion may be taken to extremes, and that when it is, it becomes dangerous. Religion, however, is no foe to rational thinking. Gobekli Tepe is a site of astounding engineering for Stone-Age hunter-gatherers. Engineering is applied science, and so these people were using their understanding of the world to establish a ritual site for the practice of their religion. They needed to live nearby, although they still had to spend their days chasing animals and gathering foodstuffs along the way. Religion made them realize that life together was a necessity for humanity to thrive. We should take a more balanced view before declaring religion a source of evil only. We may never be able to coax the gods into the laboratory, but that doesn’t mean that they don’t have a very important function for human civilization. If they are taken in reasonable doses, they might even lead to astounding transformations.

Christian Rocks

ViolFemsSitting in traffic outside the Lincoln Tunnel, I see that the Violent Femmes are coming to town. The billboard sends my mind spiraling back to college, when the Violent Femmes had released their debut album. Not that I ever listened to it (then), but in the fervently evangelical atmosphere of Grove City College, many students rooted and grubbed for any whiff of esoteric Christianity in a culture on the—pardon the genre-switch—highway to Hell. Rumors abounded that the Femmes were covert Christians, just like another up-and-coming band called U2. Not only the Femmes were violent—reaction to such Christianizing assertions was as well. I remember one of the dorm-mates in my housing group getting into a shouting match that U2 was not a Christian group and slamming his door to sulk, literally for hours. This was important stuff. We were Christians in an underground world.

Of course, some of us knew that Gordon Gano clearly betrayed the influence of Larry Norman in his voicing. And there were rumors and rumors of rumors that the Violent Femmes were coming out with a Christian album, despite the popularity of “Blister in the Sun,” the homage to masturbation that raised the group to stardom. This rumor turned out to be partially true, as Hallowed Ground took on spiritual themes, a little bit country, a little bit soul. There was some tension in the group as Gano’s lyrics began to suggest something more overtly Christian. All of this was going on long before I discovered the Femmes. At Nashotah House I taught a guest lecture on Christian themes in rock music. I researched the Violent Femmes and found that I liked their sound. They made the cut for the lecture.

In a culture as deeply steeped in the Bible as ours, it is difficult to avoid Christian imagery altogether. The Femmes were from Milwaukee (not far from Nashotah House, as the raptor flies), the heartland where beats the pulse of unadulterated religiosity. Even Iron Maiden, after all, had released the platinum album The Number of the Beast. And David Buckna points out in a recent MuseMash post, that even Ozzy Osbourne has some religious aptitude. (I always thought there was more going on in “Iron Man” than meets the ear.) This may all be chalked up to cultural Christianity—there need not be too much conviction here. Those who feel oppressed, however, huddled together in their evangelical college dorms, will always suspect that there is something more beneath the surface that makes even the “Prince of Darkness” the bearer of light.

Tempting Truth

Recently I was discussing the internet with friends. Real ones, I mean, physically in the room with me. One asked if the internet made conspiracy theories more believable. My response was that the internet has changed truth. That probably seems like a bold statement, I know. Truth, however, is an abstract very difficult to pin down. Science, for starters, does not deliver truth. Science is theoretical, and since it is falsifiable, a scientific theory, while based on facts, is always contingent; it is the best explanation that we have at the moment. Scientists generally know not to conflate this with truth, deferring the latter to the realm of philosophy. The average person probably conceives of truth as that which is literally real. Reality itself is, however, a very slippery concept—quantum physics reveals realities where many are not comfortable going, and which very few truly understand. Truth is a philosophical concept that reflects what humanity collectively accepts to be reality. It is in this sense that the internet has changed truth. It is the Wikipedification of the mind.

People, for as long as they’ve had the luxury to consider abstracts, have struggled with the question of truth. For a few centuries—almost a couple of millennia—in much of the western world, the Bible was considered a source of truth. If it was in there, it was true. The source of authority here was that of a deity who oversaw the writing of the Bible, word by sacred word. When science began to demonstrate that this Weltanschuung was untenable, people realized that truth was a bit more complex. When westerners came into contact with other religions, the complexity grew. Large swaths of humanity believed things completely different from the rest of us. What was the truth? A rear-guard action was often the result. Those who had the Bible had the truth already, and since truth doesn’t change, what more was there to be said.

Truth or dare?

Truth or dare?

The internet is not yet a mature adult, but an entire generation has now grown to a kind of maturity with it. It is the first line of recourse for true information. Who has a phonebook in their house anymore? When is the last time you opened a physical dictionary? Some of us routinely look up Bible verses online, since the internet is the ultimate concordance. Instead of turning to the Bible, or any other source, we turn to the collective “wisdom” of humanity as the measure of what is true. Snopes aside, we plow ahead with what we read online, confident that with all those millions of users, we just can’t be wrong. How strange a concept to unplug and look at the actual reality behind the screen. We might be surprised to learn that there are great and terrible wizards back there after all.

Hidden Messages

Symbolic gestures are among the simple pleasures of life. Unobserved, and certainly unappreciated, they comfort only those who perform them most of the time. Nevertheless, sometimes I just can’t help myself. Upon being summarily released after long-term employment at a certain institution of higher education, the day I left campus for the last time, I left a note with a Shakespeare quote tacked to my office door before literally brushing the dust from my feet as I drove through the gates never to return. The quote was from Julius Caesar, a play to which my niece had taken me that summer for a Shakespeare in the Park performance:

Let me have men about me that are fat
Sleek-headed men, such as sleep a-nights.
Yond Cassius has a lean and hungry look;
He thinks too much: such men are dangerous.

I have no doubts that my symbolic gesture was overlooked and the chit summarily discarded as the detritus of a warped (i.e., liberal) mind. The act, however, had been done.

Due to a booking accident, I once found myself flying first class. Those who know me will understand just how vexing this was for me. I fly quite a bit for work, and I am a populist through and through. Airlines set apart special bits of feet-darkened carpet for premium-class passengers to tread upon. They cordon off a special “lane” for the pampered class that is a nothing more than a matter of a jump to the left and a step to the right away from where those of us who wear last year’s (or decade’s) clothes board the same vehicle headed for the same destination and to which we’ll all arrive at the same time. I don’t disparage those who like receiving drinks while on the tarmac and hot towels to freshen up, and actual food on real plates while those of us before the curtain insist that there is no wizard hiding up there after all. I’m just not one of them.

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So I found myself in a leather seat with an entire cow’s worth of skin to myself. I had never been so kindly treated on a plane, with perhaps the exception of flying economy on Virgin Atlantic. I knew from the in-flight magazine that those behind me received only little pretzels and overpriced snack boxes while I was offered warm food and champagne. I pulled out my reading for the flight, The Hidden Injuries of Class by Jonathan Cobb and Richard Sennett. I’m sure nobody else noticed. But wasn’t that precisely the point?

Fly Like an Eagle

Hummingbirds, according to my bird book, have hearts that beat 1260 times a minute. That translates, if my math is to be trusted, to 21 beats per second. As the only birds capable of flying backwards, their aerial acrobatics are fascinating to watch as they hover, accelerate, and change directions like a biological UFO. During the summer they guzzle the empty calories of sugar-water that we leave for them in our feeders, so that we can lure them close enough to observe (that is, after all, how humans interact with their environment). The other day I watched a snapshot of developmental behavior. This July has been a good one for hummingbirds, with several a day visiting the local watering hole. I sometimes wonder about the flowers that are overburdened with nectar as these tiny birds hover by their communal font. At first it seemed that only one bird frequented the feeder. Then two came along, and although four feeding spouts were available, one would always chase the other away in a dogfight worthy of Baron von Richthofen. A third showed up, and when the first was busy chasing the second away, would fly over to the feeder to attempt a nip. Then a fourth. Eventually a fifth. And although there are four evenly spaced openings, only one took a drink at a time.

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“Bird brain” is a speciesist insult. Many birds are very intelligent and the comparison with human behavior is often apt. Protecting one’s private stash that is more than adequate for the community is worthy of comparison. Not to complicate speciesisms, but when a person prevents another from enjoying what one cannot, we call it being a dog in a manger (dogs, of course, do not eat the provender of the barnyard herbivores). A bird flying so fast that it’s a blur chases another away and cannot enjoy the high-calorie, human intoxicant we offer so that we can appreciate its incredible display. If we could fly like that, would we be so short-sighted?

God-like, we attempt to make nature in our own image. And mix metaphors like a professional editor. Not far from the shelter of the human breadline we offer, hover the larger, predatory birds. Those who fly fastest, super-charged with sugar and spite, stand a better chance of surviving. And when a luxury liner encounters an iceberg in the frigid north Atlantic, those who’ve lingered longer at the feeder are better equipped to gain quick access to the lifeboats that are sorely inadequate for the overbooked cruise. And if I were on board, would I not be like a hummingbird in the manger? My heart beats 21 times a second just to think about it.

Human, All Too

Back in the days of The Scarlet Letter, and before, an even more egregious double standard afflicted the sexual practices of women and men. Our primate nature promotes two conflicting principles: disgust at cheating and the desire to get away with what we can. Unfortunately, biology has often showcased female infidelity with the “illegitimate” child, and religions have stood in line to condemn the behavior that led to such circumstances. I was reminded of this while looking at a “gown of repentance” at the National Museum of Scotland. The Scottish Reformation led to an unusually severe kind of Schadenfreude when it came to pointing out the faults of others. Janet Gothskirk, spiritual kin to Hester Prynne, was convicted of adultery and had to wear a “gown of repentance,” literal sackcloth, to humiliate herpublicly. Her partner in crime, William Murdoch, is not recorded as having received any punishment for the affair, according to the placard.

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Thus it has always been: boys will be boys, but girls will be good. And when it comes time to dole out the blame, well, boys sometimes just can’t help themselves. This double standard is still in widespread practice throughout the religious world today. It shares roots with the same thinking that leads to many major religions denying sacerdotal leadership to women, and to the unfair punishment doled upon women in cultures where their behavior “dishonors” that of the men-folk. And we have all seen where male leadership has steered this ship.

What struck me hardest, staring at the dirty, ratty garment of shame, was that forgiveness seems so far removed from the religion of the Reformation. Christianity has always claimed a basis in the concepts of love and forgiveness, but when it comes to the very real circumstances of human failings, the animal tendency to attack the weak is often the driving force. We deflect because deep down we know that we all have failings. Clergy and braggarts may sometimes claim otherwise, but we share this very common liability of humanness. We should try to help each other through it. We should remember the golden rule. We should remember that sackcloth was meant to be self-inflicted and that the role of the church was to absolve the guilt, not to showcase it. Janet Gothskirk is forgotten to history, save for the garment she once wore to display her weakness for all to see.

Let It Shine

Stanley Kubrick was not the most prolific of movie makers, yet his efforts often create striking impressions. I saw 2001: A Space Odyssey at a young age, and it has remained one of my favorite films ever since. Although I’ve watched horror movies since my college years, I shied away from The Shining until about five years ago. By that point I’d seen enough clips and parodies to kind of know what to expect. Since finally viewing the original, it has become one of my most admired movies as well. Kubrick films may not be easily slotted into a genre, and The Shining is not a typical horror movie. There always seems to be something more going on in addition to the growing menace of Jack Torrance’s insanity. I’ve been hearing about Room 237 for a few months now, and I’m eager to see it. Room 237 is admittedly a movie about a movie, an exploration of how The Shining has inspired multiple interpretations of what most consider to be one of the scariest movies of all time.

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An article by Jay Kirk in the June edition of Harper’s Magazine examines this movie of a movie. Kirk is the cousin of Tim Kirk, the producer of Room 237, and offers a personal introspective of a mind under the spell of Kubrickian influence. The article, “The Shining Path: Room 237 and the Kubrick cult,” not surprisingly, keeps turning back to religion. It may be fallout from the Kirk cousins both being children of clergy, or it may be that effective horror films are, as I’ve maintained before, inherently religious. Even the meeting of the Kirk cousins takes place at Gaudi’s Sacred Family cathedral in Barcelona. It seems that there’s no way to get at The Shining without involving religion. Not that it’s a religious movie, but it may take some religion to understand it.

No doubt Stanley Kubrick was a deep man. Even those who try to interpret his movies end up adding a kind of hidden message of their own to the plethora of ideas he eloquently shot. I know nothing of Kubrick’s religious convictions, if any. Any film with the gravitas to inspire continuing hermeneutics over three decades after its release, however, will surely open itself to a kind of sanctification. The penultimate section of Kirk’s introspective focuses on Proverbs 3.5-8, a passage underlined in his grandmother’s Bible. To understand the genius behind The Shining, it seems, religion will have to be part of the discussion.

Free Freedom

A weary-looking TSA official asked me why I opted out of the full-body scanner at the airport recently. As always, I responded that it is against my religion. The haunting lyrics from a Larry Norman song waft through my head; “I was born and raised an orphan, in a land that once was free…” It used to be, when I was little, that you were innocent until proven guilty. As I stand in line at the airport, next to an eerily humming x-ray machine that is examining all my secrets, learning what I’m reading without ever having to read my blog, I watch fellow citizens step inside a sci-fi-inspired glass chamber while being bombarded with God-knows-what so that any unnatural contusions might be spotted and analyzed. They raise their hands above their heads like outlaws in the old west. We are all guilty now, until proven innocent. If you are Trayvon Martin, you pay for the assumption of guilt with your life. Don’t worry, Mr. Zimmerman, you’ll be acquitted.

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In my darker moments, I wonder who benefits from a government that keeps increasing amounts of data on its citizens while cutting programs to ensure their comfort and health. We have elected a police force, not officials of the people, by the people, for the people. Vigilantes can literally get away with murder, as long as the skin-tone algorithm is correct, but if you’re perverted enough to want to fly, you have nothing about which your government is not interested. Who is being protected here? Who is being kept safe? A stranger has his gloved hands on my crotch. I’m feeling a little more than vulnerable.

Protest is a sign of love in this troubled world. If I step inside that glass chamber and raise my arms, I am declaring that I am guilty. Let me prove my innocence to you. Technology has made our private lives so easy to scrutinize. I used to think the future envisioned by Jacques Ellul was just a touch paranoid. I’m now beginning to think he didn’t go far enough. This computer on my lap can be like a TSA official in my own home. My website visits may be traced and analyzed, and my self-publish words misconstrued. And if I go to the store at night, a stranger can follow and shoot me with the blessings of our legal system. Of what are we so afraid? Is it time to stand our ground yet?

The Good Magazine

IMG_0902I saw this magazine in a store recently. The temptation to buy it was compelling, but with international trips and a child about to start college to pay for, it felt a little superfluous. Presumably what was meant by this jaunty title, “The Bible: 50 Ways it can Change Your Life,“ was that by reading and applying the Bible and its precepts respectively, your life will be transformed. The problem is that there is no expiration date. Not to be too entrepreneurial with scripture, but how long do you have to apply all this before the blessings take hold? One of the criticisms atheists frequently bring to the discussion is that in order to explain the truly difficult aspects of the universe, the faithful often resort to laying claim to the divine mystery. God works in a mysterious way. Rationality squirms with discomfort at the thought of unsolvable mysteries. In our cause-and-effect world you might expect a fairly quick turnaround with the almighty. I know the Bible has changed, indeed, shaped my life. In more than 50 ways.

Lest I be accused of being too cynical, I feel obligated to explain that I grew up utterly convinced that the Bible was literally factual. Even working around the contradictions I studiously denied, it seemed that the goal was more to make your after-life better, rather than the one here and now. Too many nasty things attended living by the word. People were dying in the Good Book, in droves. The trade-off was a better world coming. If something transformative, in the prosperity gospel sense, were going to happen, it had plenty of time to come along in my younger years. Instead, the Bible led me to a foreshortened career in teaching it and a job in which applying its principles is a sure path to getting fired. Can the Bible change your life? It sure can.

The ways listed on the cover—live with eternity in mind, embrace your weakness, and love your enemies—all fit parts of the Bible. They are all part of “the secret” that makes for best-selling self-help books. The Bible, however, isn’t a book about making your life better. Taking Holy Writ at face value, you obey because that is what is demanded of you. Commandments have no suggestion of option about them. It’s not that I take the Bible lightly; quite the opposite. Something tells me, however, that if I need a magazine to help me figure it out, I must be missing something. Instead of reading the Bible, this is reading about the Bible. The iconic book is alive and well, even in this secular society.

Weird Tales

WeirdTaleSince I first discovered H. P. Lovecraft, I believe that I have read all his published fiction. Most recently a multi-year marathon took me through the S. T. Joshi editions published by Penguin Classics. Reading those editions led to a natural curiosity about S. T. Joshi; H. P. Lovecraft is still an author struggling for respectability, although the internet has brought him great fame. The literary elite consider many genre writers as gauche, and those who read them decidedly low-brow. When I saw that Joshi had written a book entitled The Weird Tale (the genre designation preferred by Lovecraft), I decided to learn more. Joshi, I had known from his webpage, is an ardent atheist, but also a true admirer of Lovecraft’s craft. Since I’ve tried my faltering hand at fiction a time or two, generally having even less success than Providence, I wanted to see what Joshi had to say.

Few things are as inspirational as reading about writing. Those of us compelled to do it find it an endless source of fascination. What drives us to it? We don’t know. Where do the ideas come from? We can only guess. Why do we do it? We must. And so, it is clear, also felt the authors surveyed in Joshi’s fine little book. Although the names of Arthur Machen, Lord Dunsany, Algernon Blackwood, M. R. James, and Ambrose Bierce mostly just tickled some remote tendrils of synapses in my skull, this study was the first real knowledge I had of any of them. While some patterns emerge, there is a notable diversity of background to the writers of the weird. One element that Joshi doesn’t fail to notice is their religious conviction, or lack thereof. In many ways this is odd, but in others it feels perfectly natural. Many materialists count creativity as the predetermined motion of particles and energy that evolution makes inevitable. The writers, however, refuse strictly to conform.

Lovecraft was an atheist and mostly a materialist. Joshi is puzzled, however, when Lovecraft seems to call this certainty into question. I’m not. Lovecraft did not believe in God, but he invented gods. How difficult it must be for a creative mind to dabble in the divine and simply walk away at the end of the day. Lovecraft was no stranger to peculiar residues that clung to the unwary and the bizarre transformations that could occur under the aegis of misplaced belief. But like the narrator of many of his tales, at the end he too knew he’d been affected. I don’t mean anything as crass as deathbed conversion. Rather, like all those who are truly intelligent, we must admit that there are some things we just don’t know. Cthulhu may not be slumbering beneath the sea but many will not sleep easily at night with their closet doors open. To expect anything less of Lovecraft, to me, seems just too weird.

To a Fallen Goddess

One of my favorite places to visit in New Jersey is Grounds for Sculpture. Over the past several years that we’ve domiciled here, we’ve had the opportunity to take several friends and family members to see the whimsical, creative, and inspirational park over in Hamilton. When my daughter graduated from high school, she requested a visit to Grounds for Sculpture, and, since family were near at hand, we took the opportunity to see it again.

I’ve always been aware of the religious aspect of creativity. Perhaps it is because I like to flatter myself into thinking that I’m the creative sort, despite my years of academic training, or perhaps it is the kind of pipe dream for which the liberal-minded are easily accused. In either case, I have always found that the best art evokes something similar to a religious experience. There is an element of wonder, emotion, and awe here. Not every piece of art conjures it, just as a single god isn’t sufficient for the whole of humanity. As I wander the grounds, I grow convinced that this or that sculpture had a vision akin to what I’d call religion, that led to the creation of such a trenchant piece. I always leave feeling blessed.

Photo credit: Grounds for Sculpture, postcard

Photo credit: Grounds for Sculpture, postcard

On this most recent visit, a very conscientious relative found, and later sent, a postcard of a sculpture I’d never seen. (It is possible that the sculpture is not currently on display, as the Grounds are continually evolving.) The piece is entitled “Excerpts of a Lost Forest: Homage to Ashera,” by Tova Beck-Friedman. Several of my relatives have me to blame for their awareness of Asherah; she is, after all, a relatively obscure goddess in the Hebrew Bible. The sculpture, however, speaks to me of the continuing ability of even extinct gods to inspire artists. Just as Asherah occupied several years of my academic life, I suspect she also haunts the work of sculptors who’ve come to realize that not all gods must be male, and not all gods must be real to be important. Quite the contrary, the collective deities of our heritage may still be found where art thrives.

Cultural Religion

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The National Museum of Scotland, like many museums in the British Isles, is free to visitors. Such museums are repositories of national pride and provide a sense of the scope of a nation’s history. While penurious grad students (as opposed to plain penurious, as best describes those long unemployed), my wife and I would wander over to Chalmers Street and pop in for an hour or two of inexpensive culture. During the last minutes of my recent trip to Scotland, I ducked into the newly—well, it has been nearly two decades, I have to admit—expanded museum for a gander. I was naturally drawn to the history of Scotland section—you can see dinosaurs and robots in the US, after all—and was struck at how very religious it was.

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It’s not that the Scots are any more pious than other peoples, but it is the nature of religious artifacts to receive special treatment, and therefore, to survive time’s greedy decay. No one dares to anger the gods. Beginning with the Stone Age Picts, and flowing through contact with the Romans and eventually to the Celtic culture now associated with Scotland, religion is obviously preserved. Prehistoric Picts, by definition, didn’t leave written accounts of their religion, but the treatment of special artifacts in a gritty, harsh world shows where social values were to be found. Christianization, with its apocalyptic earnestness, only accelerated the process. Celtic crosses, case after case of precious metal sacramental artifacts, and a large display of the Reformation denominated the more secular displays, or so it seemed. (The working steam engines and large looms, however, gainsay a bit of my enthusiasm. And swords seemed to be everywhere.)

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While there is a genetic base for some sense of nationhood, it is not unusual to hear a person of African or Indian heritage speaking with the familiar Scottish brogue. Surely they are Scottish too. Culture clearly ties disparate peoples together into a “nationality.” In this museum that reaches back to the dinosaurs and beyond, a great deal of the history involves people of similar ancestry who come into contact repeatedly with those of other heritages. What gets left behind after those encounters, when it’s not swords, is religious. The religions themselves then clash, fracturing into a new stage of cultural development. Even in today’s secular Europe, some of the most notable buildings are the cathedrals. And in its own way, the National Museum of Scotland is a cathedral to all who wish to understand what makes us human.

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Monument to Madness

Reflections on the implications of my recent trip to the United Kingdom will likely continue to filter into conscious expression over the next few days. Jet lag will inevitably fade, and some concepts will shake down and settle into place as the reality known as work once again demands its pound of flesh per day. One of the realities that struck me during my time in St Andrews was how violent the Reformation was when it came to Scotland. Truth holds the world hostage, since everyone wants to believe they own it. And it’s my word against yours unless one of us can pull in a larger authority—and who is larger than God? There was a lot of credibility riding on the Reformers’ certitudes. And resistance was strong. Fatal even.

Reform is nearly never gentle, especially religious reform. After the Society of Biblical Literature’s meeting disbanded last week, I wandered around the old, medieval section of St Andrews, trying to get a sense of what such conviction must have been. One of the participants narrated to me more of the stories of those who’d died in the course of conversion. Patrick Hamilton, it turns out, may have been the first victim of the Reformation, but he was not the last. Walking along on a sunny afternoon in a country where several religions consciously coexist (I was, as an American, surprised to see so many large mosques in the UK), it seemed difficult to believe that humane individuals would torture someone to a horrendous death by burning just because of religious differences. The killing times seemed so long ago. Or perhaps our killing has just become more subtle.

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Following the directions I’d been given, I came upon the Monument to the Martyrs. Not wishing to belittle the atrocity of undeserved deaths, I could not help thinking of the pillar as a Monument to Madness. Is the need to feel right so great that others must be made to die for it? After all, among those generally considered to be sane, we all believe that we are right. Who consciously accepts untruth as reality? In such circumstances the best, the only reasonable response is to agree to disagree. I can let you accept your truth, if you’ll let me accept mine. And perhaps such tolerance would serve our planet well. Even the number of trees spared had autos-da-fé been forbidden provides a silence to the wisdom of allowing difference to thrive.

Am I Famous Yet?

Sweat is running down my back and my chest.  The sun beating down on my head feels like a hammer of the gods.  East 42nd Street is clad with a wide, red carpet and drivers are honking in a way that assures you that they are seriously irritated.  I step out into Second Avenue when the little white person appears on the crosswalk sign; it is 93 degrees and I’m due back at work.  A motorcade stops me as three tour buses cascade by, and an NYPD officer waves mere pedestrians back to the baking pavement to wait another rotation of the lights.  Helicopters high overhead fail to stir this heavy, hot air.  Hazily I wonder if the president is in town, or royalty of some kind.  It’s clear that the plebeians are of less importance this afternoon in New York City.  Then I spy a banner-the All-Star Game.  I’m being broasted on this street corner for a bunch of baseball players, not one of whom I can name.  This is such a facile way to learn your place.

Chance often enters my thoughts.  There are those who become rich and famous because they are driven to it, but they happened to be in the right syzygy of circumstances to take advantage of that opportunity.  There are some who would say that attaining greatness is an act of God, and others who claim it is only fate, or luck.  The fact is, the only reason some people are more special than the rest of us is that they were offered an opportunity that opened a gate.  I’m not suggesting that hard work’s not involved, but hard word alone doesn’t suffice.  You need to have a leg up to get to ride in that air-conditioned luxury bus down Second Avenue while your fellow citizens, and not a few seriously sweating fans, step aside for you.

I’m sure it’s just sour grapes. Like most little boys I really enjoyed playing baseball. I never considered it a job, though. We were far too pedestrian in my neighborhood for that kind of thought. My goal was to be a janitor. It was only when I reached beyond this calling appropriate to my state that I ran into difficulties. The marionette dancing at the end of the strings of puppet-masters who had better opportunities than I. Sour grapes and hellish city streets—what wine will ferment from this alchemy? There go the All-Stars. In many parts of the world, as in my head, their names are unknown. Today, however, one of the busiest streets in Midtown Manhattan is stopped just for them. We’re all in the same oven, but some are in air-conditioned coaches while others are melting on the sidewalks. The red carpet is not for the likes of us.

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