Phoenix Rising

As a bird with the incredible gift of resurrection, the Phoenix is one of the most enduring symbols of Greek mythology. We, as people, are pretty accustomed to messing things up and the hope of renewal is something we earnestly crave. The Phoenix, when its long life is over, goes up in a burst of flames only to be reborn from its own ashes. Christians early latched onto this poignant symbol, as have many other religions. In origin the Phoenix is likely related to the sun mythos. Isn’t there always a small shadow of fear that somehow it might fail to rise tomorrow morning, plunging us all into interminable darkness? The Phoenix is a harbinger of hope. These are my thoughts as I soar, birdlike, toward Phoenix, Arizona. A city named after the resurrecting bird. I’m not certain what awaits me here—I’ve never been to Arizona before, but I do know it is desert, and that life in the desert is always precarious. I’m glad to have brought my mythology with me.

Phoenix was, appropriately enough for October, first named Pumpkinville. It is difficult to imagine this sixth most populous city in the United States coming to prominence under that moniker. Since it is October, however, there is an aptness to such history. My trip, as most of my travel, relates to business rather than pleasure—there is a kind of hope in resurrection here as well. As a city in the desert, resurrection would seem to be central to those millions who call Phoenix home. Indeed, the concept of the gods as we know them seems to have been conceived and born in the harsh environment of desiccated lands. Some suggest the Phoenix was originally taken from Egyptian lore. Egypt was, outside the Nile delta, a nation only a few miles wide, snaking alongside a life-giving river in the wilderness.


What is it about deserts that brings the spiritual to mind? It always seemed to me that it was an issue of utter dependence. People living in a harsh environment need all the help they can get. It is difficult to suppose that harsh deities might arise in perfect circumstances. Today Phoenix depends more on engineering and control of the environment than on providence. The gods of the desert nevertheless find a home here. Even if they have adapted to an affluent lifestyle. As go the experiences of people, so go the fortune of the gods. And resurrecting birds.

A Dog’s (Inner) Life

Last week’s Sunday Review in the New York Times included a piece tucked under Opinion entitled “Dogs Are People, Too.” Gregory Berns, the article’s author, a professor at Emory University, describes how he trained his dog to enter and remain still inside an MRI machine long enough to scan brain activity. The results, repeated on other trained dogs, indicated that dogs share the same level of sentience as a human child. Berns’ conclusion: dogs are persons. I tend to agree. Although I’m no longer a pet “owner,” I grew up with dogs (and cats, birds, reptiles, and hamsters). There was never any question in my mind that our dogs could think. The also shared emotions with people—as Holmes would say, it’s elementary. Obvious. Staring at you with puppy-dog-brown-eyes-right-in-the-face obvious. Science, however, has always had an uneasy relationship with consciousness, the ghost in the machine. Dogs, many declare, are just machines. They salivate at the sound of a bell, for goodness sake!

Berns, however, has found the holy grail of scientific proof. The brain scan is accepted as a measure of human conscious activity. It is difficult enough to lure a human into an MRI and have her or him hold still. Dogs, however, are smart. They can be trained to do this too. Berns has succeeded and now has evidence that the emotional centers in dogs’ brains respond much like human brains. If they are emotional beings, as many of us knew all along, they are persons. Berns points out that this has legal implications. We make laws about unborn humans, but we treat fully alive canines like, well, dogs. Consciousness is part of the animal, and perhaps even the plant world. That stands to reason, if not scientific proof.

Christianity is largely responsible for advocating the concept of human superiority. We are, after all, made in the image of God. The Bible tells me so. Although scientists tend to abandon the Bible, they retain the myth of human superiority. Some concepts are just too convenient to relinquish, even in a rational world. We assume, since animals don’t talk the way that people do, that they are not thinking creatures. Even scientists appear afraid, at times, to take on the immaterial concept of thought. If the materialistic view is correct, thoughts are only electrochemical signals. Only this, and nothing more. As time nears to get dressed for work, I’d like to send my electrochemical signals out to get the paper. If I do the paper will still be on the lawn when I get home at the end of the day. I’ll have to fetch my own slippers, I guess.

Need I say more?

Need I say more?

Quack, Quack, Honk

HappyHappyHappy Although I’ve never hunted, there is an undeniable sense of power involved with shooting a shotgun. Maybe it’s the harsh kick against your shoulder as a clay pigeon many yards away explodes in mid-air and a trickle of gunpowder scent tickles your nostrils. It is a temptation, however, I think most people—present writer included—should avoid. I don’t own a gun and I don’t watch television. I suppose that makes me a kind of pariah in my own country, but when I heard about Phil Robertson’s book Happy, Happy, Happy: My Life and Legacy as the Duck Commander, I knew I would eventually read it. I’ve never seen Duck Dynasty, but like Phil Robertson, I grew up in a family that middle-class folks would consider poor. Even now, many decades and degrees later, I’m still playing catch-up, unable to afford a house. Worried excessively about college payments. So how did Robertson do it? How did he become a millionaire and find a publisher? According to his book the answer is simple: Jesus Christ.

Happy, Happy, Happy is an engaging memoir. While I disagree with most of what Robertson says, it’s hard not to like him. A simple, self-made man from humble circumstances. He hides his master’s degree well. Like Augustine, however, it was only after a misspent youth that he insists others don’t do the same. “God grant me chastity,” Augustine once quipped, “but not yet.” Robertson found Jesus, or the other way around, in his mid-twenties. He, not unlike many victims in recovery, gives the credit to God. His answers are simple: read the Bible, live by it, kill ducks, and everything will be fine. Interestingly enough, two of his four sons, raised on the Gospel, also went astray before seeing the light. This is not schadenfreude on my part: I have personal experience with family “on the wild side” and I would never wish it on anyone. It’s just that the law of averages isn’t so great here. For half the boys the Gospel wasn’t enough, at least at first. The darkness pushed them toward the light. Simple fixes almost never lead to viable long-term solutions.

Phil Robertson is another of those reality TV phenomena of the “plain folk” that so fascinate media types. They can’t seem to get enough. Some of us authentically paid that price below the selective eye of the media. For some of us, the answers are much more complex, if not distressing. Hard to put that up on the screen and guarantee your advertisers that people will watch. We only want complexity knocked down. Even the fun Big Bang Theory wouldn’t be nearly so popular if the smart guys didn’t get their comeuppance week after week. I am moved by Robertson’s story. His devotion to the Gospel is admirable and it is clear that it makes him happy (happy, happy). If I ever met him I would probably nod politely in agreement, although my experience has diverged from his. We would probably have to eat at separate tables, despite my good will. The fact is, he has lots of guns and I have none.

The Tell-Tale Telegraph

Steampunk CityThere’s a guy next to me with a robotic arm. Women with lace umbrellas and aviator googles walk by on the arms of Victorian gentlemen with walking sticks. A couple have an effervescing water-cooled device on their backpacks. I must be in Steampunk City. The forecast had predicted rain, but it is a beautiful October day in Speedwell, New Jersey. Steampunk City, an event dreamed up by Jeff Mach to make money for local museums, draws in a good crowd of the garishly bedecked, causing my wife and me to feel desperately underdressed. I’ve read my share of steampunk fiction, and I am really thrilled to see so many people taking an interest in such a literary event. I did wonder, however, what demonology had to do with it. Kevin Meares of Delaware Valley Demonology Research is giving a talk on demons, and it’s interesting to notice how the light laughter of customers from the booths outside wafts through the door where stories of possession are being told.

It is difficult to listen to Mr. Meares and believe that he hasn’t seen some pretty strange things. A practicing demonologist rather than the armchair variety, he has accompanied priests on exorcisms and is utterly convinced of the reality of the entities. When asked where demons come from, he relies on the Bible and Bible lore. Either they are fallen angels, remnants of a prior creation (thus the discrepancy between Genesis 1 and 2), or the offspring of the Nephilim of Genesis 6. Whatever they are, he has seen them in the dark, and people have died because of their activity. Being somewhat of a skeptic, I still find myself a little creeped out, kind of wishing I was outside with the laughing, costumed fiction readers.

Steampunk is often about alternate realities. A world where technology developed in the fog of steam rather than the neat circuitry of electricity. Speedwell, ironically, (and probably intentionally) is where the telegraph was invented and first demonstrated. It is a key site in the Industrial Revolution, the development that made the modern world what it is with smart phones, air-light laptops, and iCloud. I’m in the basement of an historic building having my rational worldview threatened by stories of demons. Although I’m wearing my nonplused face, I know that things will be different in the middle of the night. I’ve got brass gears in my pockets and supernatural entities in my head. I’ve met a watch maker outside who translates Aramaic manuscripts. What hath God wrought indeed, Mr. Morse? Yes, I’m in an alternate universe, and I may decide not to come back to the work-a-day one after all.

Whence Jesus?

Either he did, or he didn’t. Exist, that is. Jesus of Nazareth, I mean. When a friend sent me a link to a conference on proof of the non-existence of Jesus, I had to look. Such claims have been made before, but new documents are being found all the time and I supposed that I had been too busy commissioning books on religion to find out what was happening in religion. After all, the Gospel of Judas emerged, reversing, for a while, the idea of Judas’ good-guy/bad-guy polarity. A Coptic fragment suggested Jesus had been married. Maybe something new had come along. The story on PR Web announces that Joseph Atwill will unveil his new discovery later this month, proving that Jesus did not exist. While the article doesn’t give too many specifics (why would anybody come to the conference if it did?), the initial hype seems overblown. The gist of it is that the Romans invented a peaceful messiah to try to calm the foment to rebellion that constantly plagued the borders of the empire. Is he onto something?

Perhaps what Atwill has unwittingly stumbled onto is the truth that proof derived from ancient written documents is notoriously difficult to verify. Historians have criteria for determining whether ancient documents are “historical” or not. Their methods, while not foolproof, have rescued some great lights of human thought from the netherworld of fiction: Socrates, Solomon, and Gilgamesh, a shaky consensus holds, were historical characters. Of course, each of them has their detractors. No one is perhaps as contentious as Jesus of Nazareth, although, all things considered, his historical place is fairly secure. The Gospels are not eyewitness accounts. Paul seems to have been misinformed on some points. No authentic, contemporary documents describe Jesus. If, however, he was an obscure figure until some thirty years after his death, we would not wonder at such lack of attestation.

What does it mean to be a historical person? I used to pose this to my students. Each of us in the classroom knows we exist. There are records to prove it. How many of us, however, will make it into the history books? After the zombie apocalypse occurs, and civilization collapses, written records may be destroyed. Are we, Guy Montag-like, destroyed with our papers? Historical existence is something determined by others long after we are gone. Most of us don’t stand a chance of making it into the twenty-second-century’s history books. We simply will have been. But what of Mr. Atwill’s proof? Well, we don’t have it yet. Even if he has a letter from Caesar Augustus or Tiberius saying “let’s make up a story of a baby born in a manger,” it is pretty certain that the historical importance of Jesus will remain secure. If you can drive through any one-horse town in this country without finding a church of some kind or another, perhaps I may be wrong. In another century or so, I won’t be in the history books, but I will be history.

Come listen to a story 'bout a man named Josh... (photo credit Ricardo André Frantz, WikiCommons)

Come listen to a story ’bout a man named Josh… (photo credit Ricardo André Frantz, WikiCommons)

Dying for Religion

devotedtodeathReligions never lose their ability to surprise. This entire concept of belief is one with which I am intimately familiar but about which I’m completely puzzled. If we’re honest, we don’t know from whence belief comes or why it is so effective in keeping people balanced. (There are fanatics for rationalism just as surely as there are for religious faith.) When I saw R. Andrew Chestnut’s Devoted to Death: Santa Muerte, The Skeleton Saint, I figured it would be a good read for October, when Halloween comes so readily to mind. Although I’ve studied religions all my life, I’d never heard of Santa Muerte, “Saint Death.” Probably this is because, as a representative of folk religion, Santa Muerte is not an “official” religious figure. Folk religions are what the faithful actually believe, rather than what the religious officials declare that they will believe. Many a deluded bishop would learn to his chagrin, if he deigned to speak with mere laity, that his platitudes count only in the high court of theological heaven. Saint Death is more like the experience of the rest of us.

Chestnut, a scholar of Mexican religions, discovered Santa Meurte while living in Houston. His book is a narrative introduction to the background and history of the religion, its beliefs and practices, and a consideration of what the skeleton saint offers so many Latinos. Although the news in the northern reaches of America often does not bear it, Santa Meurte has regularly made the headlines in southern climes. As a symbol of death, and therefore potential protection from death, Santa Meurte has gained notoriety by her worship being taken up by drug runners and convicts. Mexico’s regrettably long struggle with poverty and sometimes corrupt governments has led to a society in which death is very familiar. As Chestnut demonstrates, Santa Meurte likely has her roots in the Grim Reaperess of plague-ridden medieval Spain, and she has been a somewhat hidden figure in Mexican Catholicism for at least a century or two. Her first public exposure came in 2001, and since then her association with the criminal element has been repeatedly highlighted in the media.

Santa Meurte, however, is a source of consolation for those who have little in life to anticipate but death. Often, in societies driven by the acquisition of wealth, plutocrats forget that justice comes in the guise of the Reaper. To the believer, Santa Meurte is not evil. She is a natural offshoot of the Catholic veneration of saints in a culture where human aspiration is quickly and unfeelingly snuffed out. Those in positions of power claim the Santa is Satan, but they may be looking in the wrong place for evil. Pointing to the Gospel statements that death will be overcome, they overlook the passages that insist on giving away all that you have will make you ready for the kingdom of heaven. Death, even if trumped at the final trump, will greet us all by and by. Santa Meurte is a very practical saint. Chestnut’s book is a good choice to read when the chilly wind shakes the trees for their particular October rattle of dry, lifeless leaves.

Cave In

The conversation began, as conversations often do, with Plato’s allegory of the cave. The nature of reality was the topic of a chat I had with a very intelligent undergrad the other day. Plato believed in a realm of ideal forms. What we experience in life is not the actual forms themselves, but a reflection of them sufficient to alert us to what it is we encounter. Humans are sitting, as it were, in a cave. We are chained so that we face the inside wall of the cave and can’t look around. Behind us there is a fire and the ideal forms pass between the fire and people, throwing their shadows on the wall. Not having ever been outside the cave, we suppose the shadows are reality. We are, however, deceived. This led, naturally enough, to a discussion of Aristotle’s counter-argument that the “essence,” or entelechy, of things is something inherently within it. No need for an alternate realm of reality. And so, I asked, what is reality? What is truth?


My young interlocutor said that reality is what we perceive. It is different for every person, and therefore there are a multitude of realities. Truth is simply the term we apply to our experience of reality. I began to feel as old as Plato. When I was young I believed, not exactly in a realm of ideal forms, but in a universe that contained abstracts. Abstract concepts objectively existed, and in a kind of neo-Platonism, we recognized them when we encountered them. Love, for instance. We may not be able to define it precisely (although materialists claim it is just a pretense to get sex), but we sure know it when we feel it. Or consciousness. What is it? No one reading this doubts, however, that it exists. And truth. I had always assumed that there was Truth with a capital T, objectively floating around out there. Perhaps, if the undergrad is right, there are multiple truths around. We chose the one that fits our experience of reality. Q.E.D.

C.Q.D.! C.Q.D.! Worldviews are in the process of changing. I tend to think the internet has democratized truth. Religions have tended to play their trump card—revelation—at this point. The unambiguous input from the divine should end all questions. But it only requires a moment’s reflection to realize that there are multiple religions and multiple revelations. Which one are we to believe? Some scientists claim there is no need for philosophy, religion, or the humanities. Objective facts, however, are interpreted subjectively. To privilege one reality above others is a kind of intellectual fascism. Perhaps my reality is different. We all sit in the same cave watching the same shadows play in front of us. We then decide what is real. Perhaps we need to get outside for a breath of fresh air. Even Plato knew, however, that that is against the rules.

When (Nearly) Everything Changed

WhenEverythingChangedMy wife and I just finished reading When Everything Changed: The Amazing Journey of American Women from 1960 to the Present, by Gail Collins. (In the spirit of the book, I wash the dishes while my wife reads to me.) Although Collins does not dwell on the religious motivations in “traditional” women’s roles, I couldn’t help pondering how religions, rather than encouraging equal rights, have often acquiesced to the unfair treatment of women as a matter of principle. That principle is often abstract and theological. More often than not it is also mythical. As society changed to allow a greater measure of equality in social roles for the sexes, religious leaders held back, concerned more about doctrine than people. This is perhaps the most disheartening aspect of religious belief—as a human phenomenon it too easily loses sight of humanity.

Historically, of course, the roles of the sexes were tied to reproductive necessities. Women with nursing children (and startling low mortality rates) could not do the heavy work required in the agricultural societies of antiquity. I am aware that this is over-simplifying—it seems clear, however, from the materials left to us from the earliest literate cultures that a basic biological divide determined appropriate roles. Not only were women victims of high mortality rates due to difficult childbirth, but infant mortality was also high. In such circumstances it was important to guard those who survived from the potentially dangerous work of protecting flocks and tilling fields. And this was the time when the ancestors of our religions emerged. Technology improved survival rates and quality of life, but religious dogma is very slow to evolve. Some dogmas still don’t even accept the idea of evolution.

Back to When Everything Changed. Yes, bottles and birth control gave a new freedom to women. Day-care and daddy involvement also helped. And yet, not everything changed. Seeing the progress, religions tended to cry “foul!” and insist that, for women anyway, nothing had really changed. No doubt Collins is correct about a large swath of life in the secular sector. Most jobs are open to both sexes, and issues of fairness, although still lagging, are starting to be addressed. Many major religious bodies, however, still hold women in a subordinate role. Basing their reasoning on theologies long outdated, they insist than nothing has really changed at all. If only the wisdom of women and their experience were taken seriously many religions would have changed for the better as well. Only when that happens will we be able to consider that, in Collins’ hopeful words, everything will have changed.

Alien Jesus

While trawling the internet over the weekend, I came upon an interesting article that ties together religion and paranormal belief. According to ADG, a unnamed woman (already the question marks erupt) in Galilee in 1967 was visited by aliens. Instead of photographing them, as most unnamed women would, she followed their instructions to point her camera at the lake (Sea of Galilee) and snap one for the album. When she turned back around the aliens were gone, and when she had the film developed there was a picture of Jesus and a disciple or two, walking along the sea in earnest conversation. Well, one doesn’t have to be a scholar of Tobit to spot the apocryphal, and this obviously bogus story received far more hits than any of my posts do. People are fascinated by the concept, even though most of the comments show some healthy skepticism.

To me the fascinating aspect is that religion and paranormal topics hold hands so easily. That is not to suggest they are the same thing, but rather that they are both perhaps directed toward a similar goal. We find ourselves in a cold world, often. There are cruelties, atrocities, and a disheartening lack of care for others. We want to believe that somebody out there has got our backs. Is it so different to believe that God dwells in the sky than to believe that aliens do as well? What is more important than the putative fact of such celestial dwellers is the belief in them. Our minds, no matter how we may protest otherwise, are perfectly well aware of their own limitations. We can’t know everything, and so we must believe.

Many of us find ourselves in an uninspiring cycle of work, sleep, and work. Sometimes we actually even do sleep, too. Cogs in a capitalistic money machine, we leave our weekends free (sometimes) to pursue a little meaning. As much as some may castigate religion, we should not forget that without it we would not have the weekend! For a little while we can break the meaningless cycle, the treadmill upon which we heavily thump our way through five days out of every seven. Is it any wonder that so many want to believe that, like Calgon, aliens might come to take us away from our drudgery? If that doesn’t work, there’s always religious services. All you have to do is point your camera and believe.


Do You Mind?

TheScienceDelusionSeems a lot of people are deluded these days. I know I am. Still, every great once in a while I read a book that helps me cope with the morass of everyday life in a way so profound that I feel elated. At least until I get to work. One of those books I cannot commend highly enough. Curtis White’s The Science Delusion: Asking the Big Questions in a Culture of Easy Answers is epiphanic. Not your typical (generally faith-based) objection to the New Atheist phenomenon, White asks more fundamental, and indeed, logical, questions. And he’s incredibly fun to read. Starting with the conundrum that often goes unspoken, White demonstrates that even the scientists among the New Atheists ascribe to immaterial value judgments without thinking through the implications. Having jettisoned religion, philosophy—the whole of the humanities, in general, as pointless, non-empirical window-dressing, even the greatest lights still claim their tenets. As White illustrates, stars cannot be beautiful without a concept of beauty. Beauty cannot be quantified, and is therefore beyond the empirical method. One could say it’s in the eye of the beholder, but science is uncomfortable with metaphors as well.

Materialism, often in league with politics and power-mongers, fails to account for much of human experience. The real danger, as White demonstrates, is when society simply accepts it because it comes from a white lab-coat. White, along with most of non-materialists, is not anti-science. Science clearly describes, in a pretty close approximation, the physical world we know. At least in the New Atheist camp, however, it doesn’t stop there. The take-no-survivors attitude causes problems because it is hoisted on its own petard of logic. The mind that is attempting to puzzle out science is immaterial. Mind does not equal brain. The cause and the result are easily confused. Flush with neuroscience’s success of describing the brain, we assume that science can also explain things as inexplicable as the nature of light, quantum mechanics, black holes, or the Tea Party.

White is not shy of talking about the elephant in the room. Consciousness is not a material phenomenon. If you are reading this, you know what I’m talking about. We are self-aware creatures. So seem to be some other primates, cetaceans, and corvids. If our minds could be quantified a lot of psychologist’s couches would be empty. Chemicals may affect the working of our brains and influence the performance of our minds, but when they wear off, it is still yourself staring back from the mirror the morning after. Those of us who spend our lives pursuing the humanities generally don’t try to take over science. It is very good at what it does. The world as we experience it—even the use of the word “experience” itself—is, however, more than physical. Even the New Atheists dream, and hope, and love. No matter what they may say, there is an inherent beauty in that.

More Fun than a Barrel

To mere mortal eyes, a traffic barrel on a Manhattan street might seem like a pretty gritty object, hardly worthy of religious veneration. Seeing leaflets advertising eternal life taped to these barrels might suggest a profound disconnect—what hath Heaven to do with traffic control?—unless one is familiar with the ardor of religious devotion. And besides, many construction sites in Midtown bear the infamous “Post No Bills” warning. When I spotted a few of these informal fliers over the past few days, however, I couldn’t help but think about religious conviction. As someone raised in an evangelical tradition, it is difficult to convey the fear in which I found myself living. Hell seemed like more of a constant threat than Heaven was ever a promise. And my young experience in a blue-collar setting had taught me that you seldom get what you hope for, no matter how hard you work for it. Somehow, no matter how good I tried to be, Hell seemed more likely than Heaven. And the Bible does suggest that if you don’t try to tell others, you’ll be held eternally responsible.


Religious conviction and fear are not far apart. I recently spoke with a Roman Catholic believer who suggested that the fear of God has been under-emphasized of late. I do suspect that it has been parodied quite a bit, but it is difficult to assess if it has truly gone underground. Perhaps among theologians it has. Like most people, I don’t read theology. For the average believer, however, fear probably plays some part in the equation that keeps her/him coming back week after week to hear the same message over and over. My daughter sent me a flier that has been appearing all over her college campus. It is a bit ambiguous, but from my own college days I recall that the young are especially vulnerable to religious coercion. Conviction is like that.


From my own college days I recall the earnest discussions about how far one should go to convert others. The underlying motive was always fear. Getting into Hell is so easy—we were born to it, according to some. If you just live you life as a good person, helping others and trying to improve the world, you’ll still end up there. Such is the power of eternal punishment. One of my friends, when he went to restaurants, would leave a religious tract instead of a tip for the working-class waitresses. “It’s far more valuable,” he explained, without a trace of irony. I wouldn’t be surprised to find one of those tracts taped to a dirty old traffic barrel these days. Sometimes the ardor with which we approach religion simply overlooks the more obvious implications.

Twilight Zones

It was twilight last night when I drove into Binghamton. My thoughts naturally turned to The Twilight Zone since one of my childhood heroes, Rod Serling, had grown up here. Binghamton University was also the professional home of novelist John Gardner, of Grendel fame. Seeing the colorful leaves fading to the gray of a falling evening, I thought of how evocative a word “twilight” is. We are creatures with an in-born fear of the dark and twilight is our last hope of light before the night settles in. Maybe it was having just so recently read Grendel, but twilight and gods together brought “the twilight of the gods” to mind (it might have helped that a sudden thunderstorm broke out at the moment). When I first saw the word Götterdämmerung, in junior high school, I thought it must be a potent swear word, what with all those doubled letters and umlauts. My German teacher calmly explained that it was the fourth and final cycle of Richard Wagner’s opera, Der Ring des Nibelungen and it translated to Twilight of the Gods. It is itself a translation of the Norse word Ragnarök, with its single umlaut. Even though it wasn’t swearing, the concept sent a shiver through me anyhow.

I’ve never sat through a performance of The Ring, but I have heard the music with its famous Ride of the Valkyries. Based on Norse and Germanic mythologies, The Ring has deep roots in a pagan mythology where night plays a prominent role. Although J. R. R. Tolkien denied having been inspired by Wagner’s work (there was a certain political incorrectness to it, along about the early-to-mid-1940s), both four-part cycles draw on the Norse mythology that continues to fascinate us with movies like Thor and The Avengers. What impacted my young mind the most, however, was the very concept that the gods could be defeated. How was such a thing even possible? We were raised to believe good conquers evil. How can the gods—even pagan ones—lose? It was a world-distorting concept for someone yet to face high school.

Last night I was literally in the twilight zone. Having driven through the Endless Mountains region where autumn’s reds and yellows inspired me with just how colorful death can be (a European friend once confessed to me that driving along a wooded road in Pennsylvania his first autumn here he had to pull over and weep for the beauty), twilight was already on my mind. October fades into the twilight of the year. The mythologies of the northern races, the Norse and the Celts, seem almost obsessed with the ominous, growing darkness. There is a beauty to it, but also an abiding fear. Are the gods powerful enough? It was a question first raised when my eye fell on that striking word Götterdämmerung that somehow became a part of me.


Grendel’s Gods

GrendelGardnerSometimes I think that if I had to do it all over again, I might’ve chosen Beowulf instead of the Bible. Let me define “it” here: if I had to pick a vocation that would lead to personal fulfillment and personal penury, that is. Beowulf is the earliest written story in English and, it’s a monster story. What’s not to like? In honor of Banned Book Week, I decided retroactively to read a banned title, John Gardner’s Grendel. An early parallel novel narrated from Grendel’s point of view, we are introduced to the introspective, existentialist monster who is really just wondering, like the rest of us, what the point of it all is. Not surprisingly, the protagonist often addresses the question of religion—indeed, it might even be at the heart of the story.

In chapter nine, Grendel sits in the darkness in the ring of wooden gods of the Danes when Ork, the great, blind priest stumbles in and believes the monster is the Destroyer god. As Grendel toys with his theology, the old priest understands this all as a revelation, and although Grendel gives him no answers, the words are taken as divine utterances. The other priests, finding their leader out on a winter’s night, insist that he has gone senile, that gods do not reveal themselves like that. The old man, however, is unshakeable in his faith. As in much of the novel, there is more going on here than meets the eye. The deluded priest believes a monster is his god.

The question of theodicy (literally, the judging, or justification of God) is never-ending for theists. The world is a problematic place (made so, I must note, by human consciousness) for the creation of an omnipotent deity who is good. Too much suffering, Grendel, too many failed expectations. Clergy and theologians have, for centuries, tried to frame a convincing answer to the dilemma. The tack they all studiously avoid is that God is a monster, although some posit that as a straw hypothesis quickly to be knocked down. Gardner, although not a theologian, was the son of a lay preacher and farmer. One suspects that elements of that childhood crawled out through the pond with Grendel. One of the truly tragic characters, a “son of Cain,” Grendel still has an immense power on the imagination. And that power, at times, might even appear godlike.

Crowing Up

GiftsOfTheCrow Whether we climb up or down the evolutionary scale, one factor remains constant—our human sense of superiority. Despite the castigation of biblical-era thinking in the eyes of many scientists, few are willing to relinquish that Genesis-bestowed sense of being the pinnacle of nature. We know the universe is vast, but we assume we’re the best and brightest in it. Climbing down the ladder a bit, we like to distance ourselves from our fellow creatures because of our superior mental capacity. That is why I am so engrossed by scientists who explore animal intelligence. We find we are not so different after all. Gifts of the Crow: How Perception, Emotion, and Thought Allow Smart Birds to Behave Like Humans, by John Marzluff and Tony Angell is such a book.

If you’re like most people in this electronic age, you probably haven’t given much thought to corvids. Corvids are the members of the crow family: ravens, jays, magpies, and, of course, crows. Scientists have long known that these birds are exceptionally intelligent, and Marzluff and Angell have written a spell-binding little book that shows a remarkable level of intellect among the birds. Documented cases of tool making and use, conscientious interaction, and perhaps even language, have occurred among the corvids. We try to shoo them from our crops with “scarecrows” and we poison them en masse when they become “pests,” but when we take the time to understand them, we find that we may be far darker than the crows.

Not that Gifts of the Crow is all that easy-going. There is plenty of brain physiognomy and quite a bit about brain chemistry here as well. Knowing that not all of us are scientists, though, Marzluff and Angell include a generous portion of narrative description of what corvids have been observed to accomplish. For three days in a row I climbed off the bus stunned, scanning the skies for crows, just to see for myself. In this suburban jungle outside the New York City metropolitan area, crows aren’t so abundant as they were when I lived in the Midwest. They will, however, serve to remind me, when I see one, that our privileged place in nature has more to do with our thumbs than with our intelligence. When I saw a solitary crow atop a tree during a neighborhood stroll after finishing the book, I stopped, smiled, and bowed. Nature belongs to each and every creature, and there sat one intelligent enough to appreciate it.

Shut Down? Shut Up?

So, what does it mean really?  Can you tell the difference?  Although it is undoubtedly a pain for many government workers, and a huge, colossal waste of tax-payers’ money, I guess the Tea Party showed us!  Over something as simple and humane as healthcare, the neo-cons have shut down the US government.  To be honest, I can barely recall the last time this happened.  Why do I suddenly feel the need to sit on a rocking chair on the front porch and kvetch? Perhaps we don’t pay them enough to care?  Maybe the poor just aren’t worth saving?  What can possibly be going through the minds of elected officials who are willing to punish the entire nation just because they can’t pack up their marbles and go home?  Of course, I am presuming that they have marbles to pack up.  As a tax-payer of over thirty years (pushing on forty), I think I have earned the right to say, “Children behave!”  The Tea Party shenanigans have been childish from the start, trying to co-opt the spirit of rebellion against tyranny in a country that plainly has too much.  Too much time on its hands, among other things.

I often ponder how a nation with the resources of the United States can proudly tote one of the most inhumane healthcare systems in the developed world (and I’m not talking about Obamacare!).  We live in a country, if best-selling author John Green is to be believed (and I’m a believer), we pay more for healthcare than countries with socialized medicine and get less out of it.  Why do we put up with it?  Tea, anyone?  Who has the actual gumption to climb aboard a ship and throw the cargo overboard?  Today we call it piracy—hey! Stop that download!  And we throw people into jail for it.  But shut down the government?  That’s okay.  The bus still runs and I’m still expected at work.  Oh, and I work for a UK company.  The irony of it all. When I lived in the United Kingdom, people complained about the healthcare, but I will say there was no child left behind, if you get my meaning.

Our military, I see, remains open for business.  We won’t cut off the life-support of the Tea Party’s favorite department.  We have our priorities.  Somebody has to defend the millions that can’t afford health insurance.  There was a time when Christianity was all about healing and taking care of people.  Of course, in those days it wasn’t yet called Christianity, or even the Tea Party. It was just a guy and his healing touch.  Today, some of the most abstract tenets of a fully corporate religious infrastructure determine who it is that deserves health care and who does not.  Call it morals or call it marbles, we have a right to decide who can be afforded and who cannot.  And anybody who tries to start legislating fair treatment better not try to stand in the way of our comfortable worldview where those who can afford to withhold compassion can do so under the rule of law, and the unborn smile until they become born when they will soon have to fend for themselves with a government that demands monetary exchange for bodily health.  Gee, my blood-pressure seems to be up.  Good thing the doctor’s office is open.  At least I hope it is.

Outside the United Nations

Outside the United Nations