Steampunk Messiah

HomunculusSteampunk emerged as a genre of science fiction just as I was finishing seminary. It went largely unnoticed as I continued my “serious” academic work, with my first introduction being Neal Stephenson’s The Diamond Age. Since then, I’ve picked up the occasional Victorian tale and enjoyed an escape into an alternative history. Most recently that escape took the form of one of the originals of the genre, James P. Blaylock’s Homunculus. Considered to be one of the first exemplars of the emergent literary type, it has rollicking, free-wheeling tone—full of strange characters who are attempting to find various hidden treasures. One of those characters is a latter-day prophet by the name of Shiloh, who believes himself the new messiah. Since, as an emerging genre, no rules had been established, steampunk was free to cast whatever characters it found intriguing. A religious fanatic who often drives the action through his own need for self assurance is a tried and true actor in any literature that considers what motivates the masses. Firmly in the cast of “bad guys” in the story, Shiloh patronizes the mad doctor who’s experimenting with reanimating the dead. And Blaylock manages to squeeze a bit of profundity into the role as well.

Nevertheless, the character with the best quote is the ambiguous Bill Kraken, on the side of right, generally, but deeply flawed. In a conversation about immortality, he says “I’m a man of science and the spirit both, and I don’t trust to neither one entirely.” In this he sums up the dilemma of the honest individual who takes science seriously, but who knows that science can’t completely encapsulate the human experience. He trusts science, but Kraken has seen the living dead. There’s an alchemy at work here, and that box he carries on his lap houses the very homunculus that gives the book its title. An alien, actually, the homunculus is sought after by Shiloh, who supposes him to be his father. It is the homunculus who animates the dead and flummoxes the scientists.

Fiction often leads us where fact simply cannot. I strongly suspect that Blaylock had no moralizing message here, other than perhaps to beware of fanatics, and yet a message remains to ponder. That which we seek the most is that which most wishes to escape us. In the end neither scientist nor religious aficionado ends up with the homunculus under control. This is an alternate reality, after all, and the limits of human experience remain untested. Perhaps such bright thinkers as Galileo, Newton, and Einstein had it right. Perhaps the universe in which we find ourselves is not either-or, but both-and. It was our religion that brought us to science, and it is sometimes our fiction that points to the facts.

The Search for Khan

Star_Trek_II_The_Wrath_of_Khan

Continuing with the series, I watched Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan last night. Since weekends are the only time I have for the media, I also threw in Star Trek III: The Search for Spock. Now, I haven’t seen either of these movies since their theatrical release longer ago than I care to admit, but many of the details, particularly from II, had stayed with me. Clearly The Wrath of Khan is superior in every way, but I hadn’t realized how literate it was until I saw it again. From Tale of Two Cities to Moby Dick to the Bible, the viewer in 1982 was given a sci-fi movie with classics sprinkled through it. I hadn’t read Ahab’s famous words on the dying lips of Khan when I first saw it, but I still realized that they were powerful words nevertheless. The premise of both movies, however, is biblical—the Genesis project, which even gets Spock quoting the Bible, is creatio ex nihilo, well, not exactly ex nihilo, as we do have a Big Bang to start the thing. Throughout the language of creating in six days is juxtaposed to morality, for in order to create, you must destroy.

We all know that Spock dies, citing a utilitarianism that would’ve made John Stuart Mill proud, but in what is really a biblical trope: self-sacrifice. And this leads to speculations of resurrection, always lurking in the background of the biblically minded. But theology (and the acting) turn bad in III. We’re all glad to see Spock alive again, but it turns out that Genesis destroys itself after just a short time, and that “Genesis is a failure.” Where do we turn back from the first page of the Bible? There is no preface here. There is, nevertheless, a temporary garden of Eden on the Genesis planet, and it is a federation-level secret. You just can’t keep anything from the Klingons, however. So the Bible implodes and Kirk’s son sacrifices himself so that Spock might live. Can I get a concordance here?

I’m not a trekkie, but I had noticed from the original series through the original cast movies, the assumption was for a biblically literate audience. That assumption can no longer be presumed, although, if pressed, many people could guess that Genesis is in the Bible. Meanwhile, the flood of Noah is also upon us. Exodus comes next. Movies featuring Leviticus are rare. Even as the cast ages visibly from the young, brash Kirk of the 1960’s to the bespectacled, patrician father with regrets in The Search for Spock, society itself has also aged. Some would say, matured. But we need directors telling us now that the flood story is found in Genesis. The Bible has been on self-defense mode for some time as religion has become equated with fanaticism. And yet, even as resurrection looms, we can’t help but to wonder if better things lie ahead.

Why Crusade?

CrusadeAn invitation to join a crusade is a dicey proposition these days.  Perhaps Pastor Ock Soo Park is not aware of the burdensome theological freight the word carries these days.  The Bible Crusade is, nevertheless, coming up on April Fool’s Day, and, I’m glad to see, admission is free.  The tract I clutch in my gloved hand is more like a pamphlet and it is number 3 in a series, “Woman Caught in Adultery,” causing me to wonder what numbers 1 and 2 might have been.  Still, it’s Good News Publishing, so I suppose it can’t be bad, whatever the topic.  The young lady on Seventh Avenue seem surprised when I accepted the booklet she held out with a simple “Bible Crusade?” invocation.  I often accept what the shills hand out; a more thankless job is difficult to imagine.
 
The concept of biblical crusades has a strong resonance with my youth.  Although I attended the occasional revival at our local church, I never actually went to a crusade.  I did watch Billy Graham, however, on television.  I would sit glued to the screen, hanging on every word of the sermon, feeling once again the flush of my sin and the urgent necessity of repentance, then and there.  I was terrified of never giving enough of my life to the Gospel, of backsliding, of hypocrisy, of Hell itself.  As a youth I had no idea of Graham’s political agenda or of the close friendship he had with Richard Nixon.  For me, it was purely a matter of what I had witnessed on the screen as Beverly Shea lead the repetitive chorus of “Just As I Am” that reduced me to tears every time.  When we were asked to list an important person for history class in high school, I felt compelled to write Billy Graham on my slip of paper, and I wondered why people laughed when no one in the room could manage to guess who it was after 20 hints.  As guileless as a dove, but not as wise as a serpent. 

Crusades are all about conquering territory.  Sometimes, historically, that territory is physical and the violence is palpable.  It is charging fully ahead with the conviction that there is no way you could possibly be wrong, even in the face of others from foreign faith traditions willing to fight to the death over the issue.  It is invasion.  Conquest.  In the name of the prince of peace.  Evangelistic crusades are not much different.  The battlefield may be metaphorical, but it is not less real for all that.  The human psyche is not infrequently victimized in the worldview of utter conviction.  Often the driving force is the same as the Templar on his steed—control of the infidel.  With control, as the Templars soon learned, there is great wealth to be had.  As a poor boy in a run-down house, I never questioned that Billy Graham or any other evangelist deserved the money that accompanied such solemn longing of heartsick souls.  It was self-evident.  Now, standing among the crowds on Seventh Avenue, beneath a huge sculpture of a needle sewing on a gigantic button, I have to wonder about the economics of scale.  Reality is seldom what it seems.

The Trouble with Trajectories

The Bible has a way of defining lives.  I realized this at a young age, and although my experience was limited to what life reveals in a small town. Still it was evident that people even there traced trajectories defined by Holy Writ.  I used to ask my students that if something effected you every day, in ways both massive and subtle, and was potentially dangerous, wouldn’t you want to know about it?  Religion in general, and the Bible in particular, fit this description.  As the road began to fork at the usual junctures of my life (high school, college, whatever comes after college), the Bible played a role.  For some reason the Hebrew Bible captured my attention more than the Christian scriptures—perhaps it was because there was more narrative in the “older testament,” and more puzzles to be solved.  While the New Testament seemed to be definitive for matters of doctrinal importance, the Hebrew Bible retained a sense of mystery and intrigue.  Many of its characters, although ending up as “good guys” have decidedly questionable episodes in their pasts.  What’s not to like?

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Ironically, however, I discovered a job market where someone from a Christian background was immediately suspected of a supersessionist outlook on the Hebrew Bible.  Why would a Christian have any interest in that, if not for fabricating prophecies?  Many Jewish scholars were focusing on biblical studies from “both” testaments, and my puerile interests were suddenly naive and not worthy of attention.  This dynamic has always interested me: what right does an outsider have to speak with any kind of authority about another peoples’ culture or belief?  You’d think in higher education we might be beyond such parochialism, but instead, this may be the very definition of its hotbed.  What does it take to gain scholarly credibility?  Being a “white” male in a pluralizing society certainly doesn’t help.

Books are like companions on life’s journey. My reading life started with the Bible and soon gained hundreds of other companions on that long, difficult path to a doctorate in biblical studies that defined an ill-fated career. I cannot reckon the number of books I’ve read along the way, hundreds of thousands of weary pages. And now I find myself back among the biblical crowd, from the outside looking in. They speak authoritatively, I merely whimper. Whether you see it or not, the Bible is here on the streets of Manhattan. Proclaimed or ignored, invisible or plainly manifest. And those of us who’ve spent a lifetime with it have nothing considered worthwhile to say. Once the Bible take a hold, the trajectory for life is set.

The Edge

GirlattheEndoftheWorldElizabeth Esther’s Girl at the End of the World is finally out. I can’t remember the last time I read a book within two weeks of its release date. Of course, I have a soft spot for the religious memoirs of women, particularly when they manage to make their escape (I guess otherwise they wouldn’t be writing their experiences) from an unforgiving faith. Reading of the trials they have to go through to get there is far from enjoyable. But necessary. Often Bible-wielding males make the rules with a macho God behind them, and girls are abused in various ways so that the wrathful guy upstairs will be, well, a little less wrathful. I’ve read many of these accounts, and I worry deeply about the state of religion’s soul. Elizabeth Esther was raised in what she calls a cult, begun by her grandfather. This brand of fundamentalist Christianity taught the virtues of daily spankings of children, often beginning at about six months of age. The descriptions of how they used candy to tempt their children so that they could spank them to break their wills made me cringe. Evil wears many disguises, but none so effective as piety.

Religions are able to get away with quite a lot in a land of religious liberty. Elizabeth Esther proves that she’s made of some pretty stern stuff to have come through all of this, although she admits to still having panic attacks all these years later. She calls it Religious PTSD. She is right to do so. Although I grew up in a fundamentalism that scarred me for life, it wasn’t with the physical beatings that members of her grandfather’s religion doled out. When Elizabeth Esther describes the tendencies she has, the hyper-awareness of threat, I know that I am nevertheless still reacting the same way in my own life. After my fundie upbringing, I had the misfortune to be employed by a different kind of literalist religious institution. Faculty whispered about the new malady coming out of the Gulf when we started to develop nervous ticks and odd quirks after being kept under constant threat. When I contact many of my former colleagues I can still tell we were badly damaged there. Some religions, as Nietzsche long ago recognized, are life-denying to the point where a soul death would be more merciful. And yet we carry on.

Elizabeth Esther ends her book with a reluctant escape to Catholicism. She notes that even it doesn’t exist without its problems. We are, however, religiously evolved beings. It is in our constitution to seek the solace of communal worship, or at least a kind of spiritual solidarity. And there are those who will take advantage of people who simply seek their sense of self-worth from authority figures who claim to have it all worked out. Disproportionately those who are made to suffer are women. The Bible, although it cannot be blamed on the abuses heaped upon it in the name of the Judeo-Christian tradition, conveniently emerged from a patriarchal society. In the hands of some men it becomes an implement of torture. And many are left far poorer in life for having encountered this particular form of demon disguised as an angel.

Brave Old World

WorldFromBeginningsAs we continue to evolve, it is helpful to learn where we’ve been. Besides, the title, The World from Beginnings to 4000 BCE is difficult for an old Genesis reader to pass up. I knew Ian Tattersall’s book was about human evolution—a subject that has made me feel naughty ever since being raised to believe, quite opposite of reality, that evolution was a myth and Genesis fact. I remember the strange disconnect from my earliest years. Standing under the 13th Street Bridge, just before French Creek joins the Allegheny River, the main tributary of the Ohio, and, in turn, the Mississippi, my brothers and I would look for fossils. And find them we did. If you found the right kind of rock, preferably with a recent fracture, you could find the impressions of dozens of sea shells jumbled together in a glorious, fluted profusion. These were the exoskeletons of animals dead for millions of years, and thinking myself a budding scientist, I stared at them in awe, not quite sure what to make of it all. At church I learned the earth was young—not even a teenager in geologic terms—and yet, in my hand, encased in rock, contrary evidence.

Indeed, Tattersall begins his book, as many college-level texts do, apologizing to the culture that still somehow believes that the earth is just 6000 years old, despite the Tyrannosaurus towering over your head at the Carnegie Museum. Humans are latecomers on this scene, however. Tattersall gives a solid introduction to the current human family tree. Instead of being ashamed of our heritage, I’m more inclined to feel a little pride. Our ancestors, prey to large carnivores, took a distinctive evolutionary track that enlarged our brains to help us outwit our natural enemies and learn how to destroy the very planet we inhabit. Well, maybe pride is a little too strong a word. Good and evil, it seems, always stroll hand-in-hand. So we evolved, but not yet to perfection.

Evolution always makes me think of the future. A strange sense of accomplishment makes prominent thinkers, particularly those who declare themselves bright, marvel at our greatness. I can’t help but to think that something better must lie ahead. We’re told that evolution has no direction in mind—traits that help to survive until reproduction are all that really count—and yet, having the minds we do, it seems that something more might be going on. Have we built all this merely to have sex and die? Glorified May-flies? Isn’t the future a wonder of what we might become? Evolution takes so long, even with punctuated equilibrium, that we’ll never live to see it. I have a suspicion, however, that if we give it enough time, we might offer our as yet unimagined offspring a world as full of wonder as it always has been. And they’ll still be standing by the river, staring in amazement at animals made of stone.

Jesus of Hollywood

What hath Hollywood to do with Boston? Not enough, apparently. In this week’s Time magazine, an article entitled “Films Are His Flock” by Josh Sanburn revisits the ark. Actually, it throws the doors open a little wider—it looks at Hollywood’s effort to woo the religious. Ironically, although universities all across the country offer courses in religion in popular culture and the Bible in popular media, they are constantly trying to rid themselves of the detritus known as biblical scholars. High brow is in, while Hollywood makes no secret of its love to the common people. For Americans the common person is religious, or at least doesn’t block out religion like the educated crowd does. And they come with pockets lined. Religious movies, if marketed well, can be phenomenal successes. In my four years teaching at a secular state university, my Bible classes were filled to capacity each semester. Still, Rutgers coyly refused to hire me full-time. “There’s no interest,” they seemed to say. “Nobody reads the Bible.”

Meanwhile, according to the article, Jonathan Bock, founder of Grace Hill Media, a marketing firm that sells the Bible to Hollywood, knows a good thing when he sees it. Noah is about to come splashing into theaters. Son of God has already incarnated. Exodus is yet to come. And those are only the movies that are explicitly religious. I had no trouble pointing out to my long-suffering January term classes that religion plays a role in many movies, most of them explicitly secular. Those in Hollywood know that religious themes—the Bible even—resonate with the general public. Having grown up in, or maybe even below, John Q. Public, I have always known that the Bible makes good movies. Doubt it? Ask E.T. As he appeared risen, ascended, and glorified, the stranger from above wearing a white shroud and backlit with a nimbus, many of us squirmed in our seats for we had seen a clever representation of our Lord.

Perhaps it is resistance to the McCarthyism of the 1950s that so many intellectuals associate with religion, but academics just can’t seem to understand that this is important. The Bible business is a multi-million dollar industry, and yet, universities would prefer to ignore the implications. Meanwhile in Hollywood, they’re trying to make sure they get the blend just right. Theatrics and theology. You’ve got to be careful whom you choose to offend. The Last Temptation of Christ, based on a novel written by a devout Nikos Kazantzakis, just didn’t perform as a Scorsese movie. It is the job of people like Jonathan Bock to figure out why. And it isn’t hard to see that it’s a buyers market on America’s left coast. Indeed, without a hint of cynicism the Bible will bring in a flood. But that’s just academic. Or it should be.

Noah looks down over Times Square

Noah looks down over Times Square

Apes and Atheists

Bonobo&AtheistFrans de Waal is among the sanest of popular science writers. I’ve been following his non-technical work since Our Inner Ape through The Age of Empathy to The Bonobo and the Atheist. As de Waal himself explains, he tended to leave religion out of his earlier works since, for a scientist such topics are generally taboo. His direct address to religion in The Bonobo and the Atheist is refreshing and enlightened. As he notes, de Waal does not believe in God, but he doesn’t believe in the abolition of religion either. This sets him against his fellow biologist Richard Dawkins, who is so bright that the rest of us are burnt out dimmer bulbs by comparison. As de Waal soberly asks: what does science offer in place of religion? What is the point of taking away something that has evolved from our early primate days without offering anything to fill its spot? Even an ape would object.

What makes The Bonobo and the Atheist so engaging, apart from de Waal’s writing, is the openness of his outlook. De Waal suggests that the origins of morality and empathy can be glimpsed in apes and monkeys. He cites the reaction of chimpanzees to rain storms and even waterfalls that hint at early religious development. As I’ve suggested on this forum before, religion may even be allowed to animals. Their experience of religion is certainly not the same as ours, but there is evidence of both thought and feeling. When these are brought together they form religious belief in Homo sapiens. Why not in our ancestors and fellow animals? No, animals don’t develop elaborate doctrines or precious rituals. They do, however, reverence the powerful, ponder death, and feel emotion. Some of our great thinkers are ready to cast all that aside in the name of progress. More humbly, and circumspectly, de Waal considers that evolution is telling us something. And when evolution speaks, its children should pay attention.

Descriptions of reactions and behaviors that we consider unique to humans among the animal world draw me to de Waal’s books. As a scientist de Waal has to draw logical conclusions, and those conclusions point to an inner world that is not so much unique in humans as it is evolved. Religion, I believe, is one of those traits. If animals show some of the early stages of religious development, including a basic form of ethics, how does that devalue our human efforts to explain our universe? Religion is in good company, along with opposable thumbs and basic language comprehension. Looking at how we treat each other, I consider being related to animals a compliment most of the time. Without a doubt some of the ethics Frans de Waal illustrates among the bonobos exceed those I’ve experienced at the hands of many who think of themselves as made in the image of God.

42 Shots

Many of us were raised with the figure of a divine father who is ready to whip off the belt for any infraction we may make, intended or not. On a more human scale, our criminal justice system locks people in prison often on the basis of race rather than purely objective considerations. The infographic below demonstrates this clearly. African-Americans are disproportionately represented in the prison population in a society that is still reluctant to offer true justice to all citizens. When these numbers are wrenched from statistics and brought down to personal levels, the results are distressing indeed. I recently read of the case of a promising youth who was in the wrong place at the wrong time. His lawyer, a prominent African-American, pled with the judge for leniency for this young man who had great potential. Time in jail, even in one for youth, would probably scuttle this boy’s hopes for a productive future. Being an American, though, I had no hope that this might end well for the boy. Still I read on as the judge sentenced him to jail.

None of us likes to be reduced to statistics. At the same time, some social-justice disparities are easily overlooked until they are placed in such stark terms. Xenophobia is a normal human reaction. In fact, it is displayed in apes and other social animals as well as in people. Its biological function seems to be group cohesion and safety. We’ve evolved beyond that, however. The great promise of the New World was freedom. Unless you were imported as a slave. The Bible, being a document of its time, lent its voice to the approval of keeping slaves and those who wanted to justify their horrid treatment of fellow humans in the name of God relied heavily on the Good Book. We still put considerable roadblocks in the way of African-Americans and others of minority status, believing that we are somehow justified in the myth of Caucasian superiority. Humans are humans. Society benefits from the gifts that different traditions bring to the cultural table. And yet, we continue to lock up those who look different.

Justice shouldn’t be a distant dream. We know that for those who do commit crimes reformation is a possibility. Critics cite the expense, but I have to wonder whose bank account is being audited. As a society as a whole we could all benefit from some reform. The profession from which I have been repeatedly blocked is one of the few that has taken demographic configuration seriously. Some must pay the cost for others to be given an opportunity. Of course, opportunity itself is a rare commodity these days of hoarding and one-percenters. Perhaps those who build towers and remove themselves from the rest of society have put themselves in a kind of luxurious arrest. Until they are forced to share, however, those of us on the street level have to do our best to help each other out. Take a look at this infographic from arrestrecords.com and see if I’m right.

For Love or Money

IMG_1258The Council for Christian Colleges and Universities is seeking a Christian way out of a contract. It seems, according to a recent Chronicle of Higher Education article, that Edward Blews was released from his $300,000 position “without cause” (I know how that feels—not the $300K part, but the “without cause” aspect), and he wants this resolved “in a Christian manner.” To the tune of two million dollars. That’s Christian if anything is. Christian higher education counts for a fair proportion of schools in the United States, while the CCCU, defining itself as “Christ centered” has only 120 members in North America at the moment. It was founded in 1976. Ironically, my old alma mater does not find itself on the list, although Grove City College often proclaimed itself as God’s Country Club during my years on campus. Among the services listed on the CCCU website is advocacy and public policy, that will allow them the “crucial right” to hire “only persons who profess faith in Jesus Christ.” And perhaps, who can’t afford a lawyer.

Academic freedom has been on my mind a lot lately. Conservative Christian views seldom benefit from academic inquiry. These views, most of which are decidedly modern, are passed along as a package with political riders, and strive to see themselves as counter-cultural, although, in fact, they resemble the 1950s more than the 2010s. I have no idea why Blews was let go, but I do know that “without cause” hides a multitude of sins. In my case, it was shorthand, I think, for just being too liberal. I was doing a great job, but endangering the morals of majors, I guess. Teaching critical thinking does have a price tag. I don’t see seminaries on the CCCU member’s A-list at all.

It is becoming increasingly obvious that we need to understand more about human religious motivations. Reason alone cannot satisfy brains where emotion may be just as critical to thinking as logic is. I know that when I’m depressed all thoughts seem to flee, except the most dismal of the lot. Reason can’t penetrate this fog. Yet reason itself cannot be ignored. The facts it teaches are frequently uncomfortable—to scientists as well as religionists. There’s nothing fair about it. When it comes to legal agreements, however, we are at the mercy of lawyers. Ironically, those who head Christian coalitions of various sorts feel the need for financial compensation. A little lucre to wash down the humility of dismissal. “Without cause” can be the most unkindest cut of all, eh Marcus? Even Judas got his 30 pieces of silver, but the cash never satisfies.

Holy Cows

Back in the days when a book was a luxury item, great care was taken in its production and protection. Having your investment lying around with flimsy paper covers that would begin to grow blunt and roll back even before you finished reading would have seemed irresponsible. To shield the vital contents from the weather and other dangers, leather was used as a kind of skin—come to think of it, it really is skin—and safely the words were housed. Many of these volumes were, naturally, Bibles. Leather and the good book became synonymous for some—even with onionskin paper a book’s not a Bible with just a printed case hardcover. Paperback? How can you take that seriously? To make a Bible authoritative, it seems, cattle must be harvested. After all, sacrifice is at the center of it all.

Being a long-time vegetarian, this often gives me pause. My belt and watch-band are made of canvas, and I try my best to avoid leather shoes (although this is often difficult). I’m pretty sure that my leather Bibles are faux skin. Even though my family respected the Bible to the point of bibliolatry at times, we really couldn’t afford genuine cowhide. Now I take a more circumspect look at the cost of appearances. We’ve outlived the need for animal-bound Bibles. It has become more of an expectation than a necessity. An affectation. There is, however, still a big business in leather Bibles, and Italian leather seems the best fit for a Semitic savior.

What troubles me the most is the idea that animals—deemed not conscious by the very religion that allows their slaughter—are made to pay the cost for human foibles. The whole sacrificial system is built around a radical inequality. Humans domesticated cattle for their own exploitation, and their skins, when no longer needed by their hosts, came to clothe holy books of their masters. In any shade or hue of the rainbow. We can make it less grim by dying it a cheerful color and declaring its progenitor had no thoughts in its vacuous head. It lived a life of servitude and when it paid the ultimate price, it received the martyr’s gift of becoming part of the Bible. The end result? We should feel less qualms about our peccadillos and atrocities. We’ve wired their brains to trust us—we are not the predators to fear. Try not to take it personally. It’s just what our religion demands of us, for we too are a domesticated herd.

From the herd of purple cows...

From the herd of purple cows…

Flood of Fancy

Years ago I was approached to write a book about Noah. There was still some hope at that time that I might find a university job and that my words would have more credibility than just any old internet hack. At the time I’d read just about every book about Noah that had been written—and there weren’t that many. Biblical scholars, beyond tying the story to its obvious Mesopotamian sources, have long relegated the tale to the nursery school of biblical drama. Sure, it’s a great story, but what serious scholar takes an interest in a great story? Well, I outlived my academic job and it looks like Noah is going to have the last laugh. We’re told that the Pope has been tweeted about the movie by Russell Crowe and that several Islamic nations have already banned it. According to Today Darren Aronofsky, the director, is more interested in getting non-believers into the theater than trying to please the faithful. Well, let’s face it. A movie based strictly on the Bible would have to be pretty preachy.

The bigger draw seems to be this: our society is simultaneously deemed secular and religious. Americans go to church. They also respond to surveys that they believe in God, the Devil, Heaven, and Hell. They also act as if none of this were true. Business practices tend to be anything but caring, and we show no concerted effort to make sure basic healthcare is offered to all our citizens, let alone the millions who are daily suffering and dying elsewhere in the world. We don’t want to reduce our emissions as a real flood—a literal flood—is on the rise on a global scale. Maybe we’re waiting for a biblical-scale miracle to save us. Noah’s face stares out at you all across Midtown. Judgment is upon us.

NoahMovie

Action films draw male viewers. Religious movies draw females. Aronofsky and Crowe have the winning combination. No gender-bias for a secular-religious nation that has enough loose change to spend a weekend at the movies. The biggest complaint is that it isn’t the Bible. I have to admit I’m kind of enjoying the hype, despite the fact that I never received the chance to write that Noah book that was next on my agenda. If I had, now it might have enjoyed the sales that Irving Finkel’s The Ark Before Noah—scheduled for release three days before the movie—surely will. Timing has never been my strong suit. Of course, money can be its own sort of flood, and many more drown in it than in the literal waters of a secular-religious society. According to Genesis a raven was released to fly about looking for land. The Crowe might have been a better choice since movies, as we all know, improve upon the book.

Flatland

ThePowerOfPlaceThe world is flat—not.  Harm de Blij’s The Power of Place: Geography, Destiny, and Globalization’s Rough Landscape is, despite the author’s hope of improvement, a sobering read.  Geography is one of those subjects that studies show Americans consistently failing.  But de Blij begins and ends with one of my favorite themes: that place defines a person.  One of the realities with which all humans must reckon is that we have no control over where we’re born.  As de Blij demonstrates, not fatalistically, that place will determine to a great extent what life has to offer us.  Chances are that most of you reading this were born in what social geographers call “the core.”  The core is that affluent part of the globe that encompasses successful states with relatively good prospects for their citizens.  It is, numerically, the smaller part of the world’s population and it is the base of claims for the world’s flatness—that is, its apparent sameness across borders.  De Blij, who has crossed one or two of those borders, knows that there is a roughness inherent in this world, and those outside the core pay the highest price.

Among the many factors de Blij examines one—religion as an accident of birth—comes up repeatedly.  Religions quickly complicate efforts at fairness and equal distribution with various theologies of why the poor are poor and that we can justify leaving them that way.  Or worse, a religion may decide, since it alone is right, that those believing otherwise ought to be destroyed.  Internecine as well as international rancor is a commonplace of the news as religions compete for the alpha male spot on the human (actually man-made, gender distinction intended) hierarchy.  The religion you’re born into, for most of the world’s population, is the correct one.  Missionaries, by definition, disagree.  Theirs is the true correct religion and even if it doesn’t improve the lot in life of the poverty-stricken, it will at least make for a better afterlife, cold comfort though it may be.

One issue that de Blij touches upon only minimally is the sacredness of place.  Of course, that is often the ground for conflict, but in smaller ways we often feel an attachment to the place we enter the world.  Beyond visiting the relatives still near my hometown, sometimes I just want to go there and linger, pondering what this world intended for such as me.  The distress I feel when I see that the hospital where I was born has been closed down, the houses in which I grew up razed, and even my first school remodeled, touches something deep and undefinable.  It is a small part of who I am that has been erased, the silencing of the clock’s ticking.  Those rough hills were my home for the two most formative decades of my time on earth and I belong to them.  I owe them who I am.  This is the mystery of sacred geography.  The refinery fires, the childhood friendships, the Christian bookstore that propelled me in a direction I may alter but not eradicate.  It’s not rational, I know.  But like many animals, I feel the draw, and de Blij points out the many benefits and frightening realities that attend it.

Frozen Few

It’s that time of year, neither winter nor spring, when ambivalence is in the air. Gray skies with just the first damp aromas of a change in the season, followed by another snow storm and icy winds custom-made in the arctic. So we turn to movies. Frozen is continuing to make headlines and break records. And although the critics voice strong opinions, ambivalence about a powerful message still rocks a society that can’t decide if a woman director having success is an anomaly or an idea far past its time. Stories about the animated feature crop up on the internet on a daily basis, five months after its theatrical release. Some claim it is the most Christian movie in years while others claim it has homosexual marriage at its core. The queen doesn’t need a man and the world’s most conservative, progressive society is in a muddle.

Perhaps I’m just showing my age, but I noticed what I thought was an older child in the sauna when Anna first meets Kristoff. The movie didn’t give me any clues as to his being a gay partner to the shopkeeper, although it’s none of my business if he is. Disney movies have had subtle clues to a kind of radical equality that I’ve noticed over the years, from Edgar’s license plate that reads RU-1 in The Aristocats to two masculine creatures sharing a pad in Monsters Inc. I even remember some people staring suspiciously at Ernie and Bert while the insanely ambiguous Teletubbies were faulted for carrying purses and dressing in primary colors. (Even Judas Iscariot kept a purse, according to the Bible.) A good, empowering story is suspect if we think something more is going on when the lights go out in cartoon-land. Our culture can seem to think of little else beyond mores and how to enforce them.

Globalization has repeatedly demonstrated that there are many different ways of being in the world. And yet, when worlds collide the more conservative culture inevitably makes claims on its more “progressive” neighbor. We see this happening as the church in Africa, now larger than the church in America, drives social policy through denominations that somehow feel guilt at promoting equality. Perhaps proselytization is, at the core, of our fear of difference. What if the other guy is right and we are wrong? Read that back into all our misguided ancestors and we feel chilled indeed. How far do we really trust objective truth? My guess is that ice ages have come and gone that have forged the truth of the moment. Only when the cold faces us do we really admit just how slippery truth might be.

The beauty of ice.

The beauty of ice.

Wee People

Whence we come influences our outlook. Sometimes invisibly, at other time quite consciously. I remember as a child, wanting to be honest about the wearing of the green on St Patrick’s Day, asking whether we were Irish or not. Of course, for many Americans being Irish, German, or Swedish really means having ancestors long ago from a different country. Most of my ancestors had been in America for some time—a couple hundred years at least. In New Jersey, where many people are literally from elsewhere, that can seem exotic. Great-great-grandparents in one of my lines can be traced to another country, but most of my ancestry is already settled in the United States long before that. Unknown to my mother at the time of that question, one of my ancestors was indeed from Ireland, a stowaway, as I understand it, and thus I could wear green without being dishonest. (Children can be so parsimonious.) When I saw the locals walking away from yesterday’s St. Patrick’s Day parade in my local town it was obvious that not all of them were Irish (or American with an Irish ancestor), but they nevertheless came out on a cheerless, chilly day to join in the Celtic spirit of celebration. St Patrick’s Day is all about belonging.

Photo credit: Andreas F. Borchert, Wikicommons

Photo credit: Andreas F. Borchert, Wikicommons

The rich mythology of Ireland was never supplanted completely by the Catholic influence that became synonymous with many parts of the country. Leprechauns, the little people with their pots of gold, have been fused into a mythology of St Patrick and his magical clover that somehow explained the Trinity, while it is the four-leaved variety that brings good luck. And Ireland’s snake-free evolution was attributed to sacred innovation rather than the Ice Age, the true culprit. It is our myths who make us who we are, however. Where would Ireland be with a massive chunk of ice preventing snakes from evolving in a land where a genetic variation sometimes leads to a fourth leaf on a common grass of the field? And where is that pot of gold anyway?

And yet, within the last year construction on a highway was halted in Iceland (I know I’ve island-hopped here, despite the difference of a single consonant) because locals protested that it would disturb the habitat of the little people. While a post-graduate representative to the Faculty of Divinity in Edinburgh (switching islands yet again), one of the faculty admitted to a fascination with Celtic folklore. A more rational theologian challenged him saying, “what about the farmer who loses valuable space in his field because he leaves a ‘magical’ tree standing—isn’t that tragic?” The renegade faculty member allowed that this too was especially wonderful. A world enchanted is swiftly disappearing beneath the unrelenting tires and blades of scraper and cold planer, or the axe-bearing lord of ultimate efficiency. The soul is just another casualty on the road to enlightenment. And yet yesterday, those with ancestry from Africa, India, China, Italy, and even England, gathered to watch the parade where the mythology of an island that never had an empire nevertheless draws together people of all ancestries to wear a bit of green and to celebrate whence we came. St Patrick’s is a day to celebrate whoever we are. And to leave the door ajar for the wee folk that might still be around.