No, Uh

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“Give me any two pages of the Bible and I’ll give you a picture.” The words belong to Cecil B. DeMille, according to Stephen Whitty’s weekend write-up about Bible movies in the New Jersey Star-Ledger. The story was inspired by a trio of big-budget Bible films—Son of God, Noah, and Exodus—set to be released this year. While Mel Gibson put me off of Jesus movies, perhaps forever, I’ve been planning to see Noah ever since my wife first pointed the poster out to me in a local theater lobby last month. The flood story has always spoken to me, lasting well beyond the nursery years with all the fluffy animals aboard the ark. One of the points that Whitty is making, however, is that Hollywood knows something the New Atheists do not—there’s big money in religion. People will pay to see it on the big screen. The Bible still speaks to a secular nation.

Noah’s story has been dramatized many times over in the entertainment media. It is often a theme in popular fiction, although well hidden, and reemerges in the occasional search for the lost ark documentaries or Veggie Tales shorts. There’s something timeless about the world-wide flood. For me it seems to go back to the thrill of the impossible. Those first eleven chapters of Genesis teem with the surreal world of lifespans centuries long, primordial gardens full of good food, gods intermarrying with humans, and waters that cover any number of sins. There’s a robust, adventurous air to such stories—they push on the boundaries of human experience and burst beyond them. It doesn’t matter whether Noah’s ark is round, boxy, or extraterrestrial—the flood’s the thing. It appeals to imagination like less mundane disasters simply can’t.

I don’t go to the movies to learn about the Bible. I can do that right at home with a single outlay for a relatively cheap book that can be read over and over again. No, it is these early days of the Bible that give rise to the prepositional phrase “of biblical proportions,” that the movies show so well. I’m not sure that I’ll be able to make the transition from Batman to Moses when Exodus comes out later this year, but next month I do plan to let the waters of the largest event in earth’s fictive history wash over me with all its CGI glory. Seeing is not always believing, but the flood is one of the most powerful stories ever told. Who can resist the calling of deep unto deep? Be warned, the entire theater will be in the splash zone.

Holy Hollow

HollowCityEveryone wants to belong, to fit in. Growing up, I seldom felt I managed it. When you’re very young you don’t know enough to notice that you are more melancholy than other kids, or that you can’t afford the nice things they can. As you reach your teenage years, however, and you know that you come from the kinds of families that other parents warn their kids about (fairly poor, very religious, and just a bit peculiar). No wonder I find Ransom Riggs’ books so engaging. Yes, they’re written for young adults, but just about anything that Quirk Press publishes is worth the read. As an adult, if I’m honest with myself, I’m still waiting to feel like I fit in. The kids in Hollow City, the peculiars, know that they can never fit in. They have special, impossible talents that make them the targets of monsters called hollowgasts, or hollows, who try to gobble down as many as possible. Monsters, outsiders, and very human relationships—it’s a winning combination.

Quite apart from the spellbinding pace Riggs spins out (he’s a master of building tension), there are some quasi-religious elements in the books as well. I read Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children a couple years back, and Hollow City develops the mythology a bit more. The real enemies are the wights—mean-spirited malcontents who rule the monsters. They learn that they can become demigods if they extract what makes a peculiar peculiar. That’s a religious concept: the essence that materialists tell us isn’t really there at all that makes us what we are. The children are self-sacrificial toward their mistresses, birdlike and godlike at the same time.

Peculiars have two souls, although most of us don’t know what to do with even one. The soul has, of course, come under great suspicion over the last century or so. There seems to be something that makes us what we are, and it isn’t just cells and DNA. Some call it consciousness, others personality. There are those with élan and others with spirit. We can’t call it “soul” because that smacks of superstition and yesteryear. So we read of children with two souls and none to spare. Even Philip Pullman had souls for his children in His Dark Materials. The soul, in both these book series, leaves a person completely dehumanized when it is excised. Of course, materialism will do that for free. Yes, I know it’s fiction—young adult fiction at that—but my money’s on Ransom here. Let’s hear it for those who have a surfeit of souls!

Med Ed

I’m not really the one who should be on oxygen in this situation. It was a routine, scheduled oral surgery for a impacted wisdom tooth. Not mine, but my wife’s. I sat in the recovery room and they wheeled her in on oxygen. When the doctor stopped in to check on her, he looked at me and said, “My God, get that man on oxygen! He’s going to pass out!” So they took the gas from my wife and laid me down instead. My wife had the magnanimity to think it was cute, but I felt embarrassed nevertheless. I couldn’t go into medicine even if I wanted to. I haven’t the stomach for it. So as I write this in the Urgent Care unit, I’m a bit light-headed. We came in for treatment of a snow-shoveling-related injury for my wife, and my mirror neurons are firing overtime. I hear them call a code red, and I think I hear the helicopter coming down and I think I might pass out. I can’t stand the pain-filled groans coming from the next room.

Compassion is one of the most overlooked of human virtues. I haven’t taken a sick day since 1987, but I’ve had companies tell me I hadn’t earned any yet. You have to earn the right to be sick. Even when I threw up on public transit two weeks ago, in one of the most embarrassing moments of half a century, I still got up at 3:30 the next morning to climb aboard again. So I’m sitting here, feeling ill, although I’m fine, and thinking about how people naturally feel for others. Only practiced cynicism can erode that. Or maybe I’m just a wimp.

It is no coincidence that most religions feature healers or healing as one of their central tenets. Life involves suffering, anticipated or not. There is something more than the physical going on here. Pain is the enemy, and I’m the one who’s well. There may be atheists in foxholes and even in hospitals, but they must be aware that the chemicals chasing one another around the neurons upstairs believe something else. Religion is a coping mechanism, perhaps something even more. So the winter takes its toll, and the snow claims another victim. All those instruments on the wall are beginning to creep me out. My mirror neurons suggest that if only those made of ice could melt with a little compassion, this world would be a more humane place. And when you get a moment, could I get a little oxygen over here?

Scare-Yous

Witch Way

WitchCraze2Women generally bear the brunt of religious intolerance. This is an evil that has proven tenacious and insidious, and which has played out in history far too many times. Lyndal Roper’s Witch Craze: Terror and Fantasy in Baroque Germany brought this home to me once again. Books on witch hunts are deeply disturbing, but we need to engage with the brutality of the past if we want to prevent its reappearance. Roper points out that although many nations persecuted “witches” in the Middle Ages, even into the early modern period, Germany by far had the highest numbers. There were probably many reasons—no simplistic answer meets all the clues. One is clearly related to politics. Germany lacked the central cohesion of other European nations in this period. Feuding princedoms from a fragmented Holy Roman Empire had no strong central authority. When it is everyone for themselves, scapegoats are never far off. Roper doesn’t leave it at that. She points out that the central characteristic of the witch is the intent to harm Christians. Indeed, the witch is a monster born of religion, and which murdered thousands of women in the name of Christianity.

Compounding this unrealistic fear that Christians have always seem to have had, was the emerging Reformation. Distrust erupted in Germany. Was one’s neighbor a Lutheran or a Catholic? In either case, the other was heretical, from someone’s point of view. Distrust ran at premium prices. And women picked up the bill. Yes, there were male witches, most of them associated with women who’d been accused, as Roper points out. Even as the Enlightenment was burgeoning, renewed hunts for witches broke out, leaving innocent women dead in a land that valued fertility perhaps above all else. Women’s bodies, as Roper notes, were to focus of suspicion and fear on the part of a male power structure that dealt with its phobias by the use of violence. Even the Enlightenment couldn’t wipe this slate clean.

Today in the western world, secular thought has replaced superstition for many people. Women are not longer accused of witchcraft. Besides, witchcraft is a chic new religion in many places. But the longed-for equality is still not here. In many parts of the world religious violence is still directed at females by male power structures that should’ve died out with the fading of medieval Teutonic anxieties. Those who perpetrate such violence hide behind scriptures—even the Hebrew Bible acknowledges the reality of witches. Religion creates its own cadre of monsters, and those with stout conviction look for women to blame. The flames of the pyres did not lead to a universal enlightenment and the Tea Party tells us Christianity is still endangered in a world where it may spread largely unhindered. One truth, however, remains. The truly endangered are women, and men who don’t fight against the real monsters do not deserve to be called defenders of the faith.

Under Fire

The tragedy that has been unfolding in the Ukraine has brought to light some unlikely heroes. A story on NBC last week showcased, albeit briefly, priests on the front lines. In a world where joining the clergy is often a way to avoid the dark and dreary reality of war and want, it is strangely heartening to see (in this case) men of the cloth willing to walk into danger. These are people who truly do believe. Sometimes it is easy, sitting safely behind a computer monitor in a relatively quiet neighborhood, to believe that the world is a peaceful place. Even a walk through the “cleaned up” parts of Manhattan will reveal, however, that human need is very real and omnipresent. Perhaps it is just the times when I’m out—it is winter after all, and we do value our comfort—but I seldom see clearly identifiable clergy on the streets of Manhattan unless they are trying to convert. The homeless almost always are sitting alone. The chill this winter has been almost Siberian. Where do the helpless turn?

Seminary is not the training ground for combat. At least not in the way that armed conflict brings. As a student and teacher in a seminary setting, I was constantly watching for signs of hope. It takes a truly remarkable individual to engage in caring for those who need it. Far too often “minister” is a job, with benefits, because that is the only way to get along in a world enamored of capitalism. That clerical shirt can be quite costly—who wants to sully it with human need? The world inside the church is often artificial. If the people are not inspired to go out and help, then we’ve just wasted another hour in a feel-good social gathering. We’ve learned to tune out the bitter lessons of life. Yes, there are war zones. Some with real guns and the dead we see in photographs used to be people just like us. Who cares for them? A cassock can cost upward of 600 dollars. How many warm meals would that buy for the woman sitting on the sidewalk with a baby on her lap and a handwritten sign on cardboard in front of her nearly empty paper cup?

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Too often religions become ingrown. The job of missionaries is to convert, not to comfort. We would like to crawl into a world where people are safe and happy, but the moment we wander outdoors—and the mall doesn’t count—we find a different reality at work. It is difficult for me to read about current events. The Olympics are not the only reality of the world of the former Soviet Union. There are others who will never be recognized with gold, silver, or bronze, They may walk into the crossfire holding aloft a brass cross to indicate that they are there to try to help. No great cheer arises, no great ceremony for torches that have fictionally burned since ancient times. There is a fire here, however. It is the fire of human warmth. In this long winter, it is an honest flame of hope.

Weathering the Psalms

Book contracts make me happy. In the case of an academic out of water, they are rare. Few people care what a PhD has to say unless s/he has a university appointment to back him or her up. Still, I wrote Weathering the Psalms while I was fully employed at Nashotah House. I carved the time out by waking at 4 a.m. to do my writing (a practice that has stayed with me ever since), and from 1995 to 2000, the bulk of the book slowly emerged. The day I was terminated at Nashotah I was working on a revision of the manuscript, a bit uncertain of what direction to go. After the trauma of that day, I couldn’t face my little project without the anxiety of association tainting the effort. It seemed to represent my failures in finding the job I knew I was meant to do. Such potent reminders soon weary even those of us who awake well before the sun.

Working in isolation, I had noticed that the weather is a very common motif in the Psalms. The problem is, any attempt to fit the evidence into an overarching scheme is artificial. I undertook a survey of all the weather references in the Psalms, and explained them as scientifically as a layman could. The result was not the smoothest reading, nor was it tied together with a strong thesis, but it was important. Although I have not been in a position to keep up with the research such a project requires, I’ve not seen anything similar emerge. The weather, however, still happens. And people still blame it on the divine. In ancient times there was no natural world. What we call nature was actively directed by the divine. The weather is probably only the most obvious example. We all know the phrase “everything happens for a reason.” This encapsulates the biblical view of the weather. This winter with its series of storms has reminded me of this, forcefully.

Photo credit: Don Amaro, wiki commons

Photo credit: Don Amaro, wiki commons

Ironically, editors started to show interest in the project only after I’d abandoned hope of ever getting it published. It was the fruit of my despair. It represented several years of my academic life, but, like its creator, it was growing older. So last week when a contract landed on my desk from Wipf and Stock, a profound happiness settled in. A sense of completion. I am not in a position to update the contents, but at least one academic publishing house sees the worth in the manuscript that came from so much personal experience. A decade is a long gestation period. I suppose if I had to write the book today it would reflect much more the experience of world-weariness that comes from not ever finding the job you know you were meant to do. Nevertheless, it is a small offering to the deity of the weather, and I am glad that, come next year, others will be able to share in my struggles to make sense of that world.

A Toy Story

As a life-long pacifist, it might seem strange that I find myself waxing sentimental over a military-themed toy. You see, I just found out that G. I. Joe is turning fifty. For those of us who grew up in the 1960s, G. I. Joe was the acceptable “boy doll” (now, technically, “action figure”) that all the guys had. Some of us had several. We didn’t have much money, but Christmas always gave an opportunity to accessorize Joe with either the latest developments (life-like hair in a buzz cut, pull-string vocalizations, “kung-fu grip”) or the many vehicles that could be purchased separately. As the Vietnam War wore on, Joe turned his interests to science and humanitarian causes, but boys like to anthropomorphize as much as girls do, and Joe continued to get himself into many bizarre adventures. At least in our apartment he was known for fighting dinosaurs, robots, medieval knights, and even General George Custer. Joe was a fighting kind of guy. He had guns and gear and shoes that were almost impossible to remove when you wanted to change uniforms (only when Mom was out of the room). So G. I. Joe has been around for half a century now. I can’t remember childhood without him.

G. I. Joe often had near fatal encounters in our home. One of them, the talking one with life-like hair, suffered a severe war wound that left his bottom half completely dissociated from his top. I don’t think we kept the lower abdomen and legs—there was something slightly unnerving about plastic buttocks—but I did keep his top half, the talking bit. It shocked me when my Mom asked if she could take him to church. We were a “Bible believing” family since it was the days before people much talked about Fundamentalists. My mother was a Sunday School teacher. (Thus my early amazement at the magic of flannelgraphs, still primarily used for religious teaching.) We didn’t believe in evolution, and we certainly thought war was a bad thing. I did wonder, though, why Mom wanted to take a toy to church, particularly a dismembered, violent one.

Being the son of the teacher did have some perks. I knew enough to read my Bible and learn the lessons, but we were not given sneak previews for Sunday School. Seeing the trailer might make actually attending superfluous. So when Joe went to church I learned why: people are not animals. The pull-string voice box, although the sounds emerged from holes in his perforated chest, was proof. People talk, animals don’t. We didn’t evolve after all. The other kids were seemingly impressed by my evangelistic Joe. Who would’ve thought that “G. I. Joe, U.S. Army, reporting for duty” could have ever converted a lost soul? On Ebay, I see, some of these vintage talkers can fetch up to $600. Mine, I’m sure, ended up in a landfill somewhere in rural Pennsylvania where, I have no doubts, he is still preaching to the other toys about the dangers of evolution.

The ultimate adventure...

The ultimate adventure…

Mad Charles

Moving to New Jersey was made easier by Weird N.J. I found out about the magazine while still domiciled in Wisconsin when the series of books produced a Weird Wisconsin edition. I read it cover-to-cover and learned about the magazine. When weirdness would have it that we’d be moving to that self-same New Jersey, I began reading the magazine religiously. Lately, however, it has become more mainstream and less weird, but still, it is a great source of local information. We landed in Somerville because of its educational reputation and closeness to Piscataway, where I worked. I’ve always had a thing about being able to pronounce the name of the town in which I live (and I’ve even resided in Oconomowoc), so Piscataway was out. In any case, Somerville High School has an engineering program and the expected robotics team that goes along with such pedagogy. When my daughter joined the team, the whole family was drawn into four years of endless fundraising and promotion for an underfinanced club. So it was weird when I saw a story called “Rock em’ [sic] Sock ‘em Robot: Somerville N.J. vs. Mad Charles, the World’s First Singer Songwriter Karate Robot” in the latest Weird N.J. In my four years in the club, I’d never heard of Mad Charles.

Robots and religion are topics I’ve often related on this blog, so I read with amazement that about two decades before FIRST Robotics ever got its start, there was a somewhat famous robot in Somerville. Eugene Viscione was the inventor of Mad Charles, a robot that was built to help improve karate moves. The robot, as often happens in small towns, went on to other things, such as cutting records that, according to the article by J. A. Goins, are quite rare. In the 1970’s, however, Mad Charles was a local sensation, now all but forgotten some four decades later. There were even Mad Charles tee-shirts available. While we sat dreaming up new ways to get money out of the locals, and even set up a booth for the Somerville street fair not far from where Mad Charles at one time could have been found, nobody mentioned the karate robot. I doubt anyone had heard of it.

History is a fickle friend. Of course, being from a small town myself, I know it is very hard to get noticed, and even harder to be remembered. So those sleepy, pre-dawn weekend bus rides to robotics competitions, it was sometimes easy to consider how one gets overlooked. This past November, many hardly noticed as NBC didn’t make a big deal of it, FIRST robots opened the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. Somerville’s latest robot was not among the horde (we have always had a problem keeping enough charged batteries on hand), but as the robots rolled through Herald Square, I was thinking of Mad Charles and a legacy that has been forgotten. Come to think of it, I guess that is weird after all.

A Somerville robot (center)

A Somerville robot (center)

Faithful Places

PlacesOfFaith Is there any more American a diversion than the road trip? Those of us who live on large land masses with relative ease of travel sometimes like to go for, well, the fun of going. If you’re a sociologist, however, you might find funding for a road trip if you can put a thesis behind it. Christopher P. Scheitle and Roger Finke made such a trip and entitled the results Places of Faith: A Road Trip Across America’s Religious Landscape. This isn’t really an academic book, but it does contain some interesting information about faith communities that might otherwise remain off the radar (with the exception of mega-churches, one of which they visit in Houston). Religion, it becomes clear, is still a large part of life for many Americans, and not just small-town rubes like yours truly. Thriving faith communities are found in New York, San Francisco, Houston, Detroit, and Salt Lake City. Scheitle and Finke don’t neglect the smaller venues either, stopping at rural sites in Nebraska and Pennsylvania. Perhaps the biggest take-away from their book is that religion is diverse and deeply embedded in the United States.

While many claim that atheism is humanity’s next big step forward, it has to be admitted that freedom of religion (without which atheism might be problematic) has gone far. Although Places of Faith sticks pretty close to Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, and Judaism, there can be no question that many, many other religions constitute a nation where “mainstream” is not as normative as it may seem. As also became clear from the descriptions and photos the authors provide, religions are fond of splintering. Faith can be made of brittle stuff. As I’ve argued before, we are really each our own entity of personal religion. We share some traits with the larger group, but unless we’re an identical twin, likely nobody thinks quite the same way we do. Religious leaders know this well—uniformity is often a thinly veiled illusion.

Having studied religion for most of my life, I can’t say that there was too much new to me in this little book. It provides a tolerant, and colorful tour through some religions that will be less familiar to those who don’t consider just how broad the landscape is. You won’t become an expert in Mormonism or the Amish, but you might learn a thing or two about both. The authors encourage something that many religion majors know by rote: you learn a lot by exploring your local religious landscape. As a college student I tried not only Presbyterianism and Pentecostalism, but also the Jehovah’s Witnesses and the occasional foray into that mysterious realm of Episcopalianism. There was more diversity, even in that small town of Grove City, than I had the ability to explore on my own. This much was certain, however, people find meaning and comfort in their beliefs. To deny them that is to deny them what makes religious freedom the wonder that it is.

Dromedary Dilemma

Photo credit: John O'Neill, WikiCommons

Photo credit: John O’Neill, WikiCommons

This past week two friends have pointed me to news articles about camels. In the modern, western imagination camels are biblical animals, pushing their way onto the ark, carrying long-suffering patriarchs across the desert, and squeezing through the eyes of needles. These news stories indicate that camels were actually not introduced into the Levant until about the tenth century B.C.E., i.e., a few centuries too late for poor Father Abraham, whom, according to Genesis, was a noted camel owner. Of course, the reason that this is news is because Fundamentalist groups insist that every word of the Bible is literally true. If it says Abraham had camels, then, by gosh, camels he had—archaeological evidence or no. One story points out the problems for Zionists, for whom claims on the land derive from the mandate to Abraham (and, presumably, his camels). Biblical scholars have long been aware of the complex methods of scripture writing, and no camels are no problem. The bigger issue, I suspect, is that Abraham has been awol for some time as well.

Abraham, as the progenitor of the three major monotheistic religions, bears a tremendous weight on his weary shoulders. It is the weight of history. Or lack thereof. I may be a few years outdated here, but the earliest figure historically attested in the Bible is (or was) Omri, the king of Israel who spawned the notorious Ahab. Prior to that, historical records are pretty silent. Yes, I know the Tel Dan stele mentions “house of David,” but that is like mentioning Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory—it doesn’t make Mr. Wonka any more real (even though you can buy a Wonka bar at some candy stores). That means that, in the jumble of biblical history, everyone in Genesis falls into the questionable historical category. Even if Moses (himself historically dubious), wrote Genesis (and he didn’t), he wouldn’t have known Mr. Abraham personally. He had been long dead. If he’d ever been born. I’m getting worried about his camels.

Religions have often tied themselves to historical claims. Such claims are always tenuous and negotiable. For instance, I watched a movie about Abraham—Lincoln, it was called—where I learned quite a bit that I didn’t know about a very historical Abraham. At the same time, I knew the movie wasn’t history. When we rely on history to cite our superiority (often one of the functions of religion), we had better be willing to take the risks. The first biblical historical figure is a “bad guy” king of a secessionist kingdom, this time in the north. Even once we learn that the storied characters of the Bible may have never trod the earth, we don’t leave them as camel fodder. They are part of the tradition, whether they participated in history or not. I realize, however, for some it would be easier to swallow a camel than to strain out this particular gnat.

God and King

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The King James Version of the Bible is in the public domain. (Except in Britain, where it is still royal prerogative to print the King James, and it has be licensed to Oxford and Cambridge University Presses.) In any case, that means that just about anywhere in the world, anyone can take the text of the King James, reproduce it, and sell it. In this day of electronic books, that means many King James Bibles are available online, as well as in print. Just look on Amazon. The other day, I was looking for King James editions when I noted a dilemma. When you’re listing your Bible on Amazon, who do you cite as the author? Seems pretty bold to list yourself as the either author or editor of the KJV, so there have appeared a number of improbable authors of late. The first one I noticed listed the author as El Shaddai. Either an Amy Grant fan or an educated reader, this editor chose the phrase generally translated as “God Almighty” as the author. A good, strong name. It may derive from the phrase “god of the mountains,” or a bit more racily, “god of the breasts.” El Shaddai was likely a pre-biblical god that eventually got merged with Yahweh.

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The second version (which looks the same to my untrained eye) lists a trinity of authors: Holy God, King James, and Joy Mayers. What a triumvirate! I’m not sure who Joy Mayers is, but I would certainly blush in the presence of gods and kings. Particularly Holy God. Interestingly, this is not exactly a biblical title for the deity. We do get the encomium “holy” applied to God, but I’m not sure that it ever appears as a name. Well, at least we can look up King James and Joy Mayers. The next edition I found listed the author as the safely hedged “God-inspired” (hyphen and all). The problem is that God-inspired might be taken a couple of ways. One, and likely the intended way, is to see the author, whomever it may have been, as divinely inspired. Another option, and one which sounds more exciting to me, is to think of a coffee-fueled deity scribbling away under the heat of inspiration. The inspired god, writing under a nom de plume, gave us the King James (if that was his real name).

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The last one I found was the most parsimonious. The author was listed as Anonymous. This comes the closest to the historical truth of the matter. We know very little about the writers of the Bible. Probably the best attested is Paul, along with his companion Pseudo-Paul. We know this historical person wrote a number of letters. There’s little reason to doubt that people named Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John wrote some gospels. Who these people are, we don’t rightly know. Once we get back to the Hebrew Bible we find authors writing about their own deaths, and events that take place thereafter with embarrassing frequency. It could be that people saw further back then, not having to strain their eyes at a computer daily. Of course, if it weren’t for computers, we couldn’t sell our own Bibles on Amazon. I’m just waiting until I learn the actual author’s name before I post mine for sale.

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Asp and Receive

Among the X-Files episodes that bothered me the most was “Signs and Wonders,” where Mulder and Scully visit the snake-handlers. The human fear of snakes is so deep that it reaches back beyond our split from chimpanzees—our curious cousins who also fear serpents. The reality show Snake Salvation, which I’ve only seen once, has lost its star due to, you guessed it, snake-bite. I don’t rejoice in the death of Rev. Jamie Coots; it is tragic when a person with such faith falls victim to it. Nobody castigated Steve Irwin for swimming with rays, however. It comes with the job. Snake-handling tends to be an off-shoot of an extreme literalism. Many of the rest of the Christian mainstream are content to know that the snake-handling passage (note the singular) in Mark is a disputed section of the Gospel. It is likely not original and carries weight only for those who accept the King James without question. It doesn’t command the handling of snakes; it is merely a suggestion.

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According to the story on USA Today, Rev. Coots refused medical treatment after his bite and soon died. Snake bites are not as fatal as they once were—with proper treatment they are often survivable. The faith, however, that declares asps risk-free comes with a caveat that doesn’t allow for medical intervention. If it’s your time, it’s your time. If it weren’t for reality television, probably none of us would even know. Snake-handlers do get bitten from time to time, just as surely as Baptists dry out once they get out of the water. It is the way of nature. Religion tends to view itself as capable of overcoming nature in various ways, and that seems to draw in the reality TV crews.

Not only Jamie Coots, but the famed evangelical Duck Dynasty took a hit recently. That’s because the stars are only people. When we put them on the magic box we either worship them or wait for them to fall. Authentic faith, I firmly believe, does not come through television. Shortly after the invention of the tube, evangelists found their way onto the airwaves. But reality television is necessarily about the slightly off-kilter, those who aren’t like the cookie-cutter executives in Manhattan or Los Angeles. Chances are they’ll be from the south and people will watch with incredulity. Isn’t that what belief is all about? Faith is a wonderful thing when it works. Like most non-empirical phenomena, however, it doesn’t always work like view on demand. Snakes evolved to bite, and people evolved to believe.

Strange Orthodoxies

SeriouslyStrangeI had already read three of his books before I called on Jeffrey Kripal. Reading his work created a strange longing in me, as if I had been missing something I once might’ve had, but had lost on my way to academia. Kripal is a fearless writer and a profoundly kind man. He gave me a copy of his edited collection, Seriously Strange: Thinking Anew about Psychical Experiences, (co-edited by Sudhir Kakar, part of the Boundaries of Consciousness series). Like myself, Dr. Kripal had come to the conclusion that a number of apparently disparate human experiences actually belong to the same overarching class. Religion shares not a little ground with monstrosity, heroes, and the paranormal. With the exception of religion (generally) the other phenomena are classed as puerile and not worthy of consideration beyond their juvenile appeal. No real scholar would bother with them.

The orthodoxy of knowledge is a funny thing. I have been fascinated by what science teaches us about the universe since I was I child. Some of it is seriously strange as well. I always thought that science was observing the world closely and drawing logical inferences. Somewhere along the line, science became theory driven—I suspect it was some time after Darwin; and even Freud recognized the draw of the uncanny and how it related to numinous regions of human experience. In any case, by the time I was able to comprehend (partially) the fantastically complex system that science had built up I found a universe teeming with black holes that nobody had ever seen, and sub-atomic particles that behaved very naughtily, not being consistent with what we’d expect. Indeed, uncertainty abounded. Uncertainty is crucial to the humility which is the only true adjunct to human knowledge. We can only know enough to say we wish we knew more.

In the last few decades, however, science has adopted a magisterium like that of the medieval Catholic Church. That realm of unchallenged knowledge ignores the anomalous and declares that everything is reducible to material. Ironically, it seems, material is reducible to energy, and energy is less well tamed. Our understanding of our universe is still in its infancy. We haven’t even learned to walk yet. From the beginning, however, we have been religious and even science suggests that it may be biologically beneficial. So Seriously Strange takes some of the borderlands of mainstream science and looks closely at them. Some of the assertions are modest, and nobody claims to prove anything here. The essays will, however, instill a sense of much needed wonder into a Weltanschauung that increasingly has no space for simply being human.

Not Narnia

The snow fountain from a fast-moving snow-plow is a thing of beauty.  Unless you’re standing in the way.  It’s been that way this winter.  The sidewalk where I usually stand to wait for the bus is an arctic wasteland of waist-high snow piles shoved higher and higher by weary plow-drivers.  So I stand in the road, near a streetlamp in winter, but this is not Narnia.  I decided to try out New Jersey Transit’s highly anticipated “real time” bus locator—that way I know when to step out into the blowing wind to wait for the bus.  After I’d been sprayed by passing cars and the occasional snow-plow for 20 minutes, I became convinced that “real time” is just academic; it is the time that the bus would arrive, were the bus actually on time, if it ever left the garage.  Not that I blame the drivers—theirs is a thankless job that must lead to early retirement, or at least support the state mental hospitals.

Where's Mr. Tumnus?

Where’s Mr. Tumnus?

Now, I’m not the only one to be standing in the street, a hooker for capitalism, under my lamppost,  and some of the stops are completely snowed in.  When three passengers ganged up on the driver for nearly missing them because they weren’t at the stop because of all the snow, I began to feel a bit uncomfortable.  Springs can be wound too tightly, you know.  All of this is an issue because businesses don’t want to close for inclement weather.  During last week’s blizzard, I ended up taking the PATH train into New York, not knowing where it was going.  A young lady was fretting—she was going to be late for work.  An older African American gentleman comforted her.  “Don’t worry.  They don’t care if you come in late on a day like today.  They just want you to show up.”  They just want you to show up.  His words have haunted me. Businesses want you to show up because that reinforces the power of capitalism.  You don’t show and you don’t eat.  You lose healthcare.  Cobra is aptly named—you pay far more than unemployment’s pittance for monthly coverage.  Obamacare is about thirty years too late.

Every time I see the Mayor of New York justifying his decision to keep schools open when literally nine inches of well-predicted snow fall on the city—dressed in his trendy action-figure jacket, just like Christie after Hurricane Sandy—I wonder who is really being cared for.  The Mayor claims that of the over 1 million kids in the school system, a substantial proportion go to school so they can get their only hot meal of the day.  Is this the purpose of schools?  Is it not the humane duty of the largest city in the country to make sure fair opportunity is offered to those who wish to contribute?  Their parents, he adds, as an aside, have to go to work.  Why aren’t they being paid enough to feed their kids?  Oh, there is a blizzard coming, and it’s one of our own making.  As for me, it’s time to step back because I think I see another snow-plow coming.

Dead Certain

One look frightens me above all others. I have spent probably too many hours watching horror movies late at night, and I’ve seen actors—talented and otherwise—projecting the look of fear. It is a temporary thrill, soon banished by a more mundane reality. The look that frightens me above all others, however, is that of certainty. Well I remember it planted, etched, chiseled on the face of a man who believed without question that his duty was to deprive me of a career. I have seen it on faces devoid of any human emotion, but with a surfeit of self-righteousness. I was reminded of this when my wife pointed me to an article in the New York Times blog entitled “The Dangers of Certainty: A Lesson from Auschwitz,” by Simon Critchley. In this piece Critchley recounts watching Jacob Bronowski’s “The Ascent of Man” as a child. He focuses on the episode wherein Bronowski describes the danger of certainty, which often eclipses wonder when science alone is understood to be the basis of knowledge. And we have gone forty years further down that road.

Bronowski, in the clip provided by Critchley, describes how unwavering certainty led to the holocaust. It is a moving and poignant scene; indeed, the only one I remember from the episode as I watched it along with my classmates in the required humanities module at Grove City College. Bronowski, who had relatives murdered at Auschwitz, walks into the pond where their ashes were flushed, a man in a suit and good shoes, oblivious to the rational, and reaches down to touch whatever remains of the millions who died there. The scene has stayed in my head for over thirty years.

As an undergraduate I was certain. I knew the unflinching truths taught by my rock-solid faith. After four years as a religion major I had become more circumspect. Seminary found me still pretty well convinced, although much more temperately so. The doctorate, which required more intensive work than all the previous years combined, convinced me of how little I knew. I went to Nashotah House full of questions, and my goal was to bring my students, many of them very certain, to that human point of unknowing. We need to live with a question mark before we can be truly human. Curiosity is one of the more endearing traits people possess. Certainty disallows curiosity—questioning becomes the devil’s tool and honesty is the farthest thing from God that one might attain. In this era of easy certainty I often see a look on the faces of those in power that frightens me. I need to be reminded, along with Bronowski, that when shoes become more of a concern than human beings, we’ve already gone too far.

800px-Nazi_Holocaust_by_bullets_-_Jewish_mass_grave_near_Zolochiv,_west_Ukraine