All Booked Up

I remember places by books. Perhaps it is a sickness, but it is a wonderful illness—I love being surrounded by books. When I travel to a new place, a book often serves as a souvenir, as I recall where I discovered a certain title and decided that I want to own it. Of course, independent bookstores are rare and becoming rarer. Who can remember which Barnes and Noble was which? The loss of independent bookstores is a sign of culture collapsing, at least ideologically. Being surrounded by LED screens is just not the same. The viewing goes both ways. Some towns I associate primarily with their bookstores. Over a recent weekend I visited Cranbury, New Jersey for the first time in many months. Apart from its utterly charming, historic downtown, Cranbury is the home of The Cranbury Bookworm, one of my favorite used book stores. My optimism fell under a cloud when I saw the storefront empty. Suddenly, the compelling draw of this quaint town was somehow diminished. My wife and I walked down another block, and I was somewhat revived to see that the Bookworm had merely moved.

Of course, the new location was much smaller. I heard the cashier telling another customer that they had been forced to move and had kept only twenty percent of their stock. So much was clear from my own browsing. My past visits had been perhaps a little too imprudent, but I often walked out with an armload of happiness. This time I purchased a couple of inexpensive paperbacks out of a sense of duty. I support used bookstores in principle. I have had people tell me that we have too many books for the amount of space we can afford to rent. Some people regularly recommend a purge. In a world where finding a comfortable place to be encased by books is increasingly difficult, I have come to regret some of the treasures I’ve given away, or sold, over the years. If I can’t find a sanctuary for books, I shall have to make one. For those who never learned the rapture of reading, it is difficult to explain. I have a phobia of booklessness.

Photo credit: CillanXC. I miss Borders.

Photo credit: CillanXC. I miss Borders.

Even this thing we call religion began, fairly early, as an expression in writing. After people invented writing as a way of keeping receipts, they began recording religious texts. Eventually a Bible. Religious books proliferated. It may seem counter-intuitive, but even today Christian books make up a huge market, no matter how much head-shaking goes on by those who seek only secular lucre. Religion and books often go together, but even when our published parcels take a profane track, they remain lovable. They are more than texts—they are memories. One of my advisors along my academic path inscribed each book with his name, the place he bought it, and the date. Perhaps he infected me with the books-as-souvenirs idea. If he did, I thank him. And I will continue the elusive quest for the bookstore where I might pass a happy hour or two on an autumn weekend.

Ban Ban Go Away

I always seem to discover banned book week in retrospect. With the insane amount of time put into getting to and from work, and actually working, my daily bus ride is my main vehicle (literally) for reading. For eating forbidden fruit. Historically speaking, the first literature was religious literature. Much of it, if anybody bothered to read it, would end up on banned book lists, I’m sure. The Bible is granted a special amnesty, given its reputation as a divinely penned parchment, but it too has its share of unseemly topics. Sex is there almost from the beginning. Violence too. We could go further, but sex and violence are usually sufficient to land a book on the list. And the choices are always so period specific. Catcher in the Rye seems downright tame in the new millennium (or, indeed, Kate Chopin’s The Awakening), and yet we still find new books to condemn. I wonder if such books aren’t forming a new kind of scripture.

There was a time when religion challenged social convention rather than championed it. Religions have been co-opted and domesticated by political interests. Can you imagine the man who overturned money-changers’ tables in the temple on the floor of the stock exchange? We have quantified everything, even—especially—human beings. That which can be quantified can be measured and that which can be measured can be sold. Religions, but only those upholding the status quo, grease those wheels nicely. If we had a chance to know religious founders personally, I suspect we would have found banned books in their libraries. Ideas can be dangerous things.

Despite my generally kind words on this blog, I do read books that I don’t like from time to time. I would never challenge the right of the author to express his or her ideas, nor the publishers (no matter how misguided I think them) for promoting them. I am not the one to quantify. Looking over the American Library Association’s list of banned and frequently challenged books, however, I realize that my fiction-reading hours would be slim indeed. We tend not to ban non-fiction, challenging though it may be. It is the imagination that offends. Such is the power of fiction. Last week was banned book week. Time to look over the list of latest condemned editions to find what to read this week. I am always looking for future scriptures.

The usual suspects...

The usual suspects…

Bible According to Batman

DarkKnightRises Biblical tropes are alive and well in popular culture. Many would choose the flight option rather than admit they enjoy a good Bible story. They may anyway, however, without realizing it. Although The Dark Knight Rises came out over a year ago, I only just had the chance to watch it. For a kid who grew up on the campy 1960’s television series, Christopher Nolan offers adult fare. Put the kiddie menu away and sit up straight at the table. I don’t read reviews, in general, before seeing movies because I don’t enjoy spoilers. I had no idea whether Batman would come out of this alive or not. I wasn’t really even sure who Bane was (even before The Dark Knight everyone knew who the Joker was, or thought they did). The Dark Knight Rises places the whole of Heilsgeschichte (sacred history) before the viewer with verbal cues. Unless you’re reading while watching, you’ll miss it though.

Bruce Wayne is clearly cast as the wounded healer in this final installment of the trilogy. Physically and psychologically crippled, he hobbles around in a combination of Jesus and Yoda figures, somehow supernatural yet fully human. Death and resurrection transpire twice for him in this film. When Bane breaks Batman’s back (an often fatal injury) even Catwoman thinks he might be dead. He is very much alive, however, in the prison only “Bane” escaped (resurrection one). Not only does he rise from the grave, he also ascends into heaven by escaping the well—anyone who’s read Jeremiah, or even Genesis, knows the origin of that motif. Risen, ascended, and glorified, Batman returns to beat the crap out of Bane. But the bomb is still on the loose and before Batman faces his nemesis he tells Commissioner Gordon to arrange “an exodus”—Joseph’s descendants must get out of Egypt. At the Red Sea (the Hudson River) the Pharaoh’s army blocks the exodus of the children of St. Swithun’s who, in response, bow their heads in prayer (am I the only one seeing this?)

Commissioner Gordon, found guilty of betraying the common man, receives the sentence of Exile (“death, by exile” to be precise). Again, those sensitive to Jeremiah know that exile is a kind of death, but death with a noble purpose. The Heilsgeschichte of Israel involves exodus and exile. The Christians added on death, resurrection, and ascension. Christopher Nolan put them together in one Dark Knight. But I mentioned two resurrections, no? Flying the bomb out of Gotham, Batman is definitively blown to smithereens—the blast radius was, after all, six miles. And yet, Alfred has a post-resurrection visitation, where no touching occurs (Touch me not; for I am not yet ascended to my Father) sees his savior. Was the Bat the Holy Spirit on autopilot? Is that Catwoman with him? Might I be so bold as to type Mary Magdalene? Well, I may be over a year late with my observations of The Dark Knight Rises, but as I think Christopher Nolan understands, the Bible has been lying around even longer. If the success of this movie is anything to go by, it will be around for a long time yet to come.

Monsters are Due on Main Street

MedievalMonstrosityNow that the slow descent into darkness has begun, my mind naturally turns to monsters. In the early days of this blog I felt as though I had to justify writing about monsters when I was limiting myself (mostly) to religion, but it is now clear that many scholars have recognized the connection. Monsters cross over boundaries, and, given religions’ focus on proper borders, declaring monstrosity is often a sacred task. That comes through clearly in Sarah Alison Miller’s Medieval Monstrosity and the Female Body. Utilizing mainly three medieval texts, Miller draws out how they present various aspects of the female body as monstrous. Predictably, the source of their conviction is frequently the viewpoint of the church, the dominant institution of the Middle Ages. Biology was a touch more advanced than it had been in the biblical period, but despite the figures, many writers assumed the male to be the default model of humanity and the female somewhat suspect. Given the multiple pluralities of the natural world around them, this idea is passing strange.

This book is not for the squeamish. Miller plumbs the depths of bodily fluids and the beliefs surrounding them in a pre-scientific era. Male writers wondering at the changes the female body undergoes, however, may have been a necessary stage in the growth of knowledge. It is easy for us today to suppose that equality should have been always on their minds, but Scripture, a large source of authority for medieval mentality, had cast the sexes into an uneasy opposition. The only figure in the Bible who seems sensitive to the unfairness of it all is Jesus. And even his viewpoint couldn’t change the conservative conviction that somehow God was truly the über-male and that all the females of nature were somehow subordinate. Dare we say it? Monstrous.

Miller closes her brief consideration by delving into the writings of Julian of Norwich. Julian was a most remarkable mystic who wrote of God in strikingly feminine terms. Turning those boundary-violating bodies into the sacred, here was one medieval writer who saw the female as normative, salvific, even. Julian never commanded the kind of authority that a male cleric could, but as Miller shows, even men in this period were considering the feminine aspects of a wounded deity. Reformation, however, snapped a masculine, Protestant lid on any such speculation. Today, ironically, many Protestant traditions have, at first reluctantly, admitted female clergy. The religious body of the Middle Ages, the Roman Catholic church, still keeps women in a separate, somehow subordinate role. Monsters come in many forms and they break down boundaries. Some borders, however, may be meant to be breached.

Darwinian Dawkins

Richard Dawkins seems like he’s probably a nice guy in person. You can tell quite a bit about somebody from their writing, and even when Dawkins is being abrasive in script, you can almost see a gleam in his eye. When I read The God Delusion, for example, I found myself nodding in agreement quite a bit. Not that I agree with everything he wrote; as an academic I can’t, in principle, agree with everything anyone writes. Nevertheless, Dawkins expresses himself with passion and clarity, if with a bit over overstatement. I was interested to read the interview with him in the 10 Questions section of this week’s Time magazine. When one is building a case, it is easy to pile on rhetoric, and pretty soon the force of an argument takes on its own life and sometimes a few casualties are left bleeding in the wake. Still, it is a good exercise to sharpen the mind.

Wikipedia Commons, photo credit: Mike Cornwell

Wikipedia Commons, photo credit: Mike Cornwell

The last of Time’s 10 questions deals with how Dawkins can be certain there is no God. Dawkins, in a conciliatory move, declares that there is much of which we can never be certain. Noting that future science will discover realities that we simply don’t foresee, he suggests, “it’s extremely unlikely that it would happen to home in on an idea from a Bronze Age tribe in the desert.” I found this final sentiment a touch off-kilter. We have plenty of scientific developments that have come out of the “Bronze Age tribes,” but God is not one of them. “Desert tribes” gave us metal smelting, bovine and caprid domestication, and, perhaps most importantly of all, writing. God, however, comes from a much earlier evolutionary strata. In fact, by the time that the Sumerians appeared, multiple gods were already in their train.

In fact, evolutionary scientists seem to indicate that our brains have contrived some need for God/gods. That God isn’t a semitic desert mirage, however, is attested by people all over the world developing the idea independently. Not only did the Israelites and their forebears have deities, so did the Vedic cultures that we now call Hinduism. So did the Native Americans, indigenous African religions, and those who developed in isolation on Australia. Gods evolved everywhere. It doesn’t take a scientist to figure out that this means that we have some need of them. I like what Richard Dawkins writes. I enjoy his candor and passion. We do, however, have to credit the desert tribes with much of the thinking that leads to science, but the gods, they are far more ancient than that.

What’s a Sukkot?

It’s not every day you see a lulav and etrog, even in Manhattan. You can tell life’s too busy when you miss that it’s sukkot. Not that I’m Jewish, but I have been invited to sukkot a time or two by a friend, and it was always a fun, relaxed occasion. A festive little booth in the back yard, sweet wine and cookies. Running the rat race in New York City it is sometimes easy to forget. On my hurried footrace to some place or another, I noticed a group of Orthodox Jews standing along East 42nd Street with lulav and etrogs in hand. So distracted was I that I only vaguely wondered, “why are they holding those at this time of year?” Several blocks later, entering the Port Authority Bus Terminal I saw a man just standing as the crowds parted around him like the Red Sea. In his hands lulav and etrog. Finally it dawned on me: sukkot. It is fall, the time of year when I used to be able to enjoy the bounty of nature and the good-natured holidays. A time before when.

800px-EtrogC

The Hebrew Bible prescribes a set of three pilgrimage holidays: sukkot, shavuot (pentecost to the Greek, or Christian), and passover. Of the three, all associated with the exodus from Egypt in some traditional way, sukkot is the most lighthearted. The command to live in booths is said to be a reminder of the dwelling in tents during the wilderness wandering. Anthropologically speaking, it probably goes back to an ancient tradition of living in huts during the harvest when you don’t always have time to go home and tuck yourself comfortably in every night. Combines hadn’t been invented, and harvesters had to work long hours to ensure that the crop was gathered in. Eventually it became a celebratory occasion. Nice of Moses to allow a bit of festivity here.

Back while at a certain seminary in Wisconsin, a local Jewish friend used to invite my Hebrew Bible class to sukkot. Numbers were small, and invariably wary—were they going to be proselytized by the other? No, but they were invited to shake the lulav and etrog, sip a little wine, and chat about Leonard Cohen. A bit of a cultural exchange in the midst of prolonged indoctrination. I often wonder if my friend continued the tradition after I was asked to leave. The Christian school never made any reciprocal invitations, of course. Ecumenism is often a one-way street. So I stopped a moment at smiled at the stranger in the bus station, solemnly holding lulav and etrog aloft. Life is a bit too busy when we can’t even take a moment to consider all the things we take for granted every day.

Civil Lies a Ton

Often I began my classes by asking a basic question: if something pervasive, invisible, and very powerful were affecting you daily, in all aspects of your life, would you want to know about it? I don’t recall too many sleepy shoulders shrugging. We want to know what it is that is impacting us on a daily basis. Of course, I meant religion. Our secular society has a peek-a-boo affinity with religion; if we close our collective eyes, it will go away. Time and history have long put the lie to this idea—religion is a deep and pervasive force in society, and it is not about to go away. In our one-size-fits-all culture, however, we like to think that the bottom-line of greed and personal promotion will satisfy everyone. Statistics, however, seem to indicate otherwise. Not just America, but the world is a pretty religious place. I have always wondered at the strange elitism that considers itself above the influence of hoi polloi (in the literal sense). “If I’m not religious,” so the reasoning goes, “then no sensible person can be.” And we ignore religions until they explode and then go on ignoring them some more.

Although my career hasn’t turned out the way I’d hoped—I am an academic through and through—I still believe in the conviction that got me started down this rough and tangled trail. Religion is important. It is important to understand because it is very much a part of what it means to be human. Even those who are not religious have had to switch off an instinct that every child feels during a thunderstorm, and every adult feels at a time of deep, existential crisis. We may not believe, and yet we believe we believe. Religion is part of us. If we ignore it, we become strangers to ourselves.

I often look at our insipid culture. Sure, the internet provides hours of entertainment, and even some bits and pieces of knowledge. We have, however, consistently devalued those things that make us civilized. Art, music, literature, and yes, religion, all played a part in the very founding of what we consider civilized existence. Prior to that we were hunter-gatherers, roaming after the necessities of daily life. While our institutions of learning struggle to make entrepreneurs believe they still have value, we train our children to hunt and gather. It may not be food, but it is something not so different from food. Only money truly satisfies. If there were another way of being in the world, it might imply—why, it might imply that there is something more to be gained from life. And since that idea is a religious one, it is safest to ignore it and pray it will go away.

IMG_0558

No Singing Matter

Canticle for LeibowitzA Canticle for Leibowitz, by Walter M. Miller, Jr., is one of those books that I read years ago, and when I picked it up again found that I remembered very little of it. I suppose this is one of the hazards of extensive reading—some important things get lost in the noise. I recall having read A Canticle for Leibowitz when I was a grad student at Boston University, and I remembered the detail of a grocery list being taken for holy writ in a post-apocalyptic world where, in a strange reincarnation, monks have once again become the guardians of knowledge. Little else remained. Perhaps part of the reason is that the book requires more experience with the church than I had in those days. One might suppose a seminarian would have about as much ecclesiastical experience as one might need. Not so. It did teach me, however, to read provocative books.

Like most dystopias, there is a deep bleakness to A Canticle for Leibowitz. In the light of recent developments in the papacy, the book is remarkably prescient. In the final pages of the final section, a radiation-sick woman and her young child, in constant pain, seek the government sponsored euthanasia camp. Abbot Zerchi, however, condemns this as a sin against God. Doctrine takes the place of compassion, and only moments later the final atomic strikes wipe the abbot and his monks off the earth forever. Yet there are monks on a spaceship, ensuring that any future planets will have the same uncompromising doctrine planted there as well. For a book published in 1959, it sounded incredibly contemporary. Miller’s anger still echoes throughout. The church builds societies that destroy themselves. A cycle of futility.

I wonder what the result would be if more people read such stories. It is, of course, easy enough to shut out any implications we don’t like and claim it is all a silly piece of fiction. The problem is that Miller is not too far off base. Our civilization does own much to its religious institutions. Those institutions sometimes have considerable trouble relinquishing control when society finds its grounding in science and technology. It is difficult to believe divine proclamations from above in the age of the space telescope. Yet, even so, we still elect to power politicians who look back millennia for the instructions on how to treat those of other genders or races. To do so, as Miller recognized, is to begin building bombs all over again. And even old Ecclesiastes declared that there is, in a Leibowitzian twist, nothing new under the sun.

Com-Passion

I suppose it is always premature to hope that ancient institutions are likely to improve. Like many other followers of developments in religion, I was pleasantly amazed to read reports of Pope Francis declaring that, in my vernacular, that the church should not be so stuck in the rut of doctrinal abstemiousness that it forget mercy and charity. How sad to see that hours later he was forced, Galileo-like, to recant somewhat. The forces at work are far more powerful than the vicar of Christ. In some minds religion is doctrine. I know whereof I speak. For several years of my professional life I worked for a doctrinaire institution where any hint of mercy was considered a kind of Protestant mewling before a God who would’ve made even Jonathan Edwards tremble. Although officially released “without cause,” I can’t help but think that my own pastoral sensitivities were at fault. I don’t believe that religions thriving on condemnation deserve the title.

Ironically, I was at Notre Dame University when headlines about the Pope’s declaration that the church should not obsess about homosexuality and abortion appeared in the papers. It was with a kind of wonder that I heard an academic say, “the Pope is sounding more Lutheran all the time.” I’m not naive enough to suppose that the pontiff is suggesting a change in doctrine—there are rocks so heavy that the Almighty himself can’t lift them—but that the leader of the world’s largest church was suggesting mercy and compassion outweigh legality felt as if Amos or Micah had just walked into the Vatican. The next day the Pope had to come out and strongly condemn abortion. Politics, it seems, will always trump human understanding.

IMG_0996

We live in an era of iron-willed religions. The human element often vanishes beneath a frowning providence that wishes for clocks to be turned back decades, if not centuries. These religions have no place for improving the human lot in this sinful world—it is much easier to condemn than to contemplate compassion. Religion is hard, for people find forgiveness a difficult doctrine to accept. Jonathan Edwards dangled his spider over the eternal fires of hell, but ecclesiastics today suggest that swift shears taken to that silken web would solve all the problems. Time for change? Not in this century. Religions, too, evolve. But evolution doesn’t equal improvement. Many an agnostic has become so because of the reality of “nature red in tooth and claw.”

From Darkness

All things being equal, most religions side with light. Let there be light. Enlightenment. Dewali, the festival of lights. The light of heaven is as much the appeal just as the darkness of hell is its antipode. Today, as the autumnal equinox turns us toward the darker half of the year, many religions mark the occasion with some kind of notice of the fading of the light. In the Celtic calendar, so indicative of the old religions of Europe, the recognition of the triumph of the dark comes at Samhain, or Halloween. It is the realization that darkness always follows light, and even the relative carelessness of summer has its limits. We are, half the year, no matter our location on the globe, in darkness.

Despite the habits of some college-age folk, people are not, by nature, nocturnal. Biology has evolved our sense of daylight, color-rich sight as a main means of our survival. Our religions have taken our fear of the dark and valorized our experience of light. Even as the winter solstice rolls around, festivals of many religions add more and more lights to ward off the encroaching night. The equinox is a moment of stability. It is a tenuous moment, occurring only twice a year, when darkness and light hold an uneasy truce. We are poised to move into shorter days, cooler weather, and the apparent loss of life. There is a melancholy to it, beautiful and compelling, if somewhat sad.

As I reflect on the fading of the light, I realize that the southern hemisphere, whence light seems to be rising, is facing the vernal equinox. Their summer is about to begin. Days will lengthen and light will be abundant. Our religious calendars tend to be keyed to the experience of those in the northern hemisphere. Those in the south, following the dictates of Rome, celebrate Christmas in summer and Easter in the fall. After my rainy visit to Indiana, where, on a rainy Thursday evening I saw a rainbow in the east, I awoke to a rainy Friday and saw a rainbow to the west. Fractured light. The light of a fading day broken into its myriad shades and hues. Light is that way. It is always daylight somewhere in the world, but religions focus on the light where we find ourselves at the moment.

IMG_0744

A Certain Man Went Down

Among the progeny claimed by Wabash College is Dan Simmons. I’ve read a couple of Simmons’ ghost novels, although in reverse order. I read A Winter Haunting, which I quite liked, and followed it up with Summer of Night. Having lived in the Midwest many years, it was easy to visualize the scenes. Then came the time for my trip to Crawfordsville, Indiana. I started the day in South Bend, finishing up my meetings at Notre Dame. I’d noted on the map that, as is often the case, the places I need to get to just aren’t connected by anything resembling a direct route. Although the forecast said “30 percent chance of rain,” I’d awoken at 4 a.m. to a thunderstorm and it had been pouring all morning long. I could swear they were making plans to convert the great Notre Dame stadium into an ark. Perhaps I’d forgotten just how persistent Midwestern storms can be. Soaked, I crawled into my rental car to tool down to Crawfordsville. At least the rain had finally stopped.

On one of those highways in the middle of corn fields as far as the driver’s eye dares look, the low tire pressure light came on. I dutifully pulled over and called Hertz. The suggestion was to find a gas station and put some air in the offending tire. Someone could be there in three hours. Looking about me at the amber waves, I thought of the spirits of Dan Simmons’ stories. A car breaking down in the heartland. No one around to offer assistance. The illusion allusion was shattered when a stranger pulled over and asked me if I needed help. I recall a priest friend once tearfully confessing to me that he had, on a rainy night, refused to stop to help someone with a flat because of fear for his safety. I understood completely—it can be a scary world out there. “And likewise a Levite, when he was at the place, came and looked on him, and passed by on the other side.”

With multiple stops to put air into my slowly leaking tire, I limped my way from town to town, reaching my destination after dark. Along the way a fierce rainbow appeared to the east as the sun began to set. Once you’ve abandoned the interstate in Indiana, there’s no going back. I began to notice just how many churches dotted each little village through which I drove. Samaritans, I thought. As I write this in Crawfordsville, I think of the corn, sorghum, and soybean fields that inspired Dan Simmon’s ghosts. I think of a stranger, a woman of minority demographics, stopping to see if I needed help along a lonely highway. She was among those our society would deem vulnerable, and yet she was the only one who stopped. And I think of parables. “But he, willing to justify himself, said unto Jesus, And who is my neighbour?”

IMG_0988

Our Lady of Culture

So I’m in the land where sport and religion become one.  Notre Dame is an intimidating university for a small Protestant like myself.  Like on a first date, I’m never sure what to do with my hands.  Standing below the famous “touchdown Jesus,” more properly, the “Word of Life,” I feel small indeed.  For a long while in US history, Catholicism was treated like some kind of cult.  Those of us reared Protestant were taught to fear “them” and their ritualistic ways.  I’m more afraid that someone might ask me about football stats.  Sports is a religion I’ve never studied.

IMG_0997

Culture is like a colossal Cuisinart.  Lots of stuff goes in, all of it more or less equal, and the blades begin to whirl.  Sports, religion, fast food, alcohol, a dash of education, and we’ve got an American classic.  The only time that sports come to my mind is when they start to take on the flavor of religion.  The level of the devotion of fans is the envy of many a church.  In fact, the word “fan” was borrowed from the lexicon of religious behaviors.  It is not difficult to sense the pride in football here, but then, sports are often a civilized way to assert one’s self-worth in a culture where self-worth feels under threat.  It is hard to recall a time when the Fighting Irish were not mainstream.

“High culture” has put itself on the endangered species list by becoming inaccessible in a culture that doesn’t value education (not to reflect on the academics I’ve seen at Notre Dame, which are pretty impressive).  I cringe, however, when I see polished politicians basking in their lack of introspection on issues that impact the entire human race.  They seem proud to declare themselves untainted by education.  They will support sports, however, and particularly football where violence is padded, but still encouraged.  It is culture for those who enjoy the lowest common denominator.  In the airport I noticed another “touchdown” character who, in some quarters in more recognized than the deity soaring over Notre Dame’s venerable stadium.  I was in the true presence of culture even before I boarded the plane.

IMG_0977

High Tide

While the devastating rains in Colorado this month are a very serious concern, over the past several days I heard and read the adjective “biblical” associated with them several times. Even the National Weather Service made reference to “biblical rainfall amounts.” It’s true that the Bible does contain the most famous, if not exactly original, flood story in the modern world. The tale of Noah easily goes back to the Sumerians, and there are deluge stories from around the world that rival it in most details. Even in this secular age, though, we all still know that floods are the province of providence. It is of interest, however, how the word “biblical” has taken on a distinctly negative connotation. The most noteworthy of biblical materials are high literature of optimism and potential for good—and sweet heaven when we die. And yet, floods, droughts, plagues of insects, these are the “biblical” events in our lives.

Floods can indeed be devastating. They demonstrate the illusion of solidity under which we try to assure ourselves that the high ground is the safest place to be when the globe warms up, or God grows somewhat impatient with human antics. Biology has implanted deeply in our psyches the desire for a safe haven, a place where we can store our stuff securely. In fact, the “net worth” of an individual—so noteworthy when we die—is measured in terms of the material goods which we control, or “own.” The quality of a person’s inner life is not something of their “net worth” to society; it can’t be divvied up by lawyers and investors, and, in terms of legality, is unimportant. We are valued for our things.

That’s why floods are so pernicious. I don’t devalue the lives that have been lost, but the headlines declare the dollar amounts more loudly. Here is where the obvious clash between the days of Noah and our own come into play. The only goods the delugonaut took aboard the ark consisted of food and life itself (although the Sun Pictures version shows his family with anachronistic metal knives and even some furniture). When the whole world is flooded, the only property valued at all is that on the deck next to you. Our society values people by what they acquire rather than by who they are. Floods wipe out the former, leaving the latter harried but hopefully intact. If we were to build arks today, no doubt as the clear-cutting of rain forests with the subsequent extinction of countless species shows, we would use the choicest wood and would cram every last square inch with our stuff, while people and other animals outside beg for entrance onto the boats that we “earn.”

448px-Noah_mosaic

Grace, Virtually

Although Yom Kippur is now over, I have a confession to make. My wife just showed me eScapegoat, the website where you can confess your sins over the virtual priest laying electronic hands on a disturbingly cute animated goat. Even before I owned a computer (or one owned me), and even before I knew of the internet, I used to joke with friends what the technological revolution would mean for religions. Would we eventually go to an ATM for virtual communion? Would the screen glow with the words of the eucharistic liturgy, Rite 1, or would it be more contemporary (Jesus raised the glass and said, “This blood’s for you!”)? Would a physical wafer come through the slot? If so, would it have to have been pre-consecrated? So our bemused musings ran. But our idle thoughts held a touch of prophetic insight, it seems. Can the force of religion come through the keys upon which your fingers rest? The monitor that glows like heaven itself? Whence electronic salvation?

There can be no doubt that religion is a huge topic on the internet. I generally don’t go looking for it, because it will come to me. Religions, by their very nature, spread. They are aggressive memes, wanting desperately to replicate themselves. Our frail human minds want so much to believe that we have found the truth, and once we have, we want to share it with others. Bibles were among the first books off the first printing press. Television soon evolved televangelists. The internet became the home of virtual religion. For some it is reality, nothing virtual about it. Concepts such as grace, however, defy any kind of clear exposé, there’s always shadows in this room. Can it make its way, preveniently, through the wires and waves of the internet?

eScapegoat is lighthearted, but I can’t help but wonder if there isn’t a more serious side to it. Confession on the internet can be cheap. Anonymity (excepting, of course, the NSA) is easily maintained. Your confession, visible to the faith community, is really between you and the Almighty, right? The book of James tells us confession is good for the soul, or something similar. We all know that admitting a mistake has its own cathartic release, but I found confession, in my Anglo-Catholic days, terribly invasive. Surely I knew that I’d made errors, and I knew that I felt badly about them. Did I really have to tell someone else so that I would feel bad about them all over again, reopening wounds that had already begun to heal? Isn’t this the beauty of eScapegoat? You can make a serious confession that others will see anonymously as a joke. Our poor, blinking goat will pay the ultimate price.

800px-William_Holman_Hunt_-_The_Scapegoat

Where No One has Gone Before

766px-VoyagerI already miss Voyager. Not that I ever met her, but I followed her progress from her youngest days and to when she was a curious youngster flirting with Jupiter and Saturn, to her more circumspect considerations of the outer gas giants. An extension of human curiosity itself, Voyager 1, like the Energizer Bunny, just kept going and going and going, revealing a solar system more beautiful and complex than we earth-bound denizens knew. And she didn’t see God. Ancient people had always supposed, given the human disposition to climbing, that God was somewhere above us. Even the discovery that we live on a globe didn’t really change that—we are still down here, so God must still be up there. Voyager 1 has traveled 11 billion miles with nary a glance at the divine, and she is now the first human-made object, besides perhaps God, to exit the solar system.

Space has always been a personal fascination. I took astronomy both in a Cold War era high school that actually had a working planetarium (in a very moderate-income town, even!), and in college (where there was no planetarium). In unguarded moments I even considered astronomy as a career. I don’t have the “right stuff” to be an astronaut, but I can stare at the sky for hours and wonder. Voyager was out there doing things I’d never do, seeing what I could never see, experiencing the deathly frigidity of cold, cold space. And now she’s leaving home. No one is certain how long she’ll keep serving humanity with new images and information. It will take her a long, long time to reach anywhere else, unless she’s abducted by aliens. In the meantime, all of us down here will age and die, as will the next few generations. Voyager will simply keep going.

Space is beautiful in its solitude. The objects that we’ve glimpsed out there have been full of wonder and mystery. Still, we are told, it is mostly empty space. Or dark matter. Perhaps because of the active volcanos on our own planet we were once told that Hell lay under our feet. There is a fiery world below, to be sure, as science has demonstrated. We call it the mantel rather than Hell, and visits to it are decidedly short-lived rather than eternal, but ancient religious thinkers got the temperature about right. If the analogy holds, Voyager 1 may yet meet some kind of deity out there. She, after all, has escaped the solar system and has slipped into Heaven. In order to explore eternity, we need to boldly let her go where no device has gone before. Although I never really knew her, I already miss Voyager 1 badly.