Transparent

With its endless versatility, gold is many things to many people. Already at the dawn of civilization, both in the old world and the new, it was a valued commodity. It is one of the few things that conquistadors didn’t have to impose on their victims; love of gold was already there. One of the qualities of gold that makes it such a remarkable metal is that a little bit can go a long way. Gold plating, for example, can be accomplished with very thin sheets of gold. This made it ideal for decorating statues of gods in antiquity, or at least the heads of the statues, as reflected in Daniel’s dream of Nebuchadrezzar’s statue. “Thou art this head of gold,” even Daniel obsequiously crows. Today, of course, gold represents commerce and it often sits, unused, in great storehouses heavily guarded, so as to prove a nation’s worth.

Gold still has industrial uses in the book business, particularly with Bibles. A classic Bible with calfskin leather, gold letters stamped on the cover, and gilt-edged pages, can be a luxury item. The gold on the edge of Bible pages is only 1/300,000th of an inch thick, or thin, meaning that a Troy ounce goes a long, long way. Only books with an idolatrous value get this kind of treatment. And they still sell. Somehow an ebook just doesn’t compare. The irony here is that the contents of the Bible suggest that gold is of lesser value than the spiritual truths contained within. Still, we can’t help but smooth the outside with burnished gold. Show and tell it on the mountain.

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Although the populace demanding evangelical standards such as the Scofield Bible are going ever more and more towards the large-print editions, the leather-and-gold crowd is still alive and has the cash to prove it. The same content is available online with just a few keystrokes, but there is no gold coating here. All that glitters is not gold, goes the old saying. As we turn our gaze ever heavenward, the glass visors of space helmets are also covered with a thin layer of gold, as if the deity we might glimpse is best viewed through gilded glasses. From the moon—humanity’s farthest step—back to the early statues of gods whose names have been forgotten, even though it may be the thinnest veneer possible, we look at the world through gold.

The One That Got Away

While looking for reviewers for a book proposal on Jonah, I had a strange realization. Few mainstream biblical scholars are interested in the book. Or at least in publishing on it. The same goes for the Bible’s other great watery adventure, Noah’s story. Ironically, these are the stories we, as children, are weaned on. Kids love animals, right? And both Noah’s ark and Jonah’s great fish mastication involve animals, as well as lots of water. Both stories have more than a whiff of the fantastic about them—the kind of thing children can relate to. And yet, biblical scholars, collectively, wonder why few people are interested in their work as they take on the more heady work of unraveling Isaiah or Romans.

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Jonah used to be a test case for the Fundamentalist crowd. You were a “Bible believer” if you could, with steely gaze, claim that Jonah was swallowed by a fish—the Bible doesn’t say “whale”—and survived three days only to be vomited up on the Levantine shore to make his soggy way back to Assyria. Three days swimming in the gastric juices of just about any animal doesn’t do a great deal for a prophet’s credibility. Or physique. And since the story is fantastic, and populist, scholars avoid it like a giant fish. Meanwhile, John and Susie Q. Public want to know about this story—what does it mean? Did it really happen? Why is it in the Bible at all?

My generalization above is somewhat faulty. (What generalization isn’t?) Evangelical scholars still take an active interest in Jonah. Jonah is the stomach-acid test of faith. Since I never really outgrew my love of monster movies and outlandish plot lines (my brothers recently convinced me that I should see Sharknado) I’m fascinated by the tale of Jonah. It is one of the most carefully constructed stories in the Bible, and it clearly has a very counterintuitive message about who is acceptable in God’s eyes—here’s a hint: they live in Nineveh and even dress their animals in sackcloth when they realize they’ve been naughty. The book of Jonah, however, has been condemned for being a puerile tale of a guy who can hold his breath three days, amid chemicals that can dissolve most organic substances, and utter Psalm-like prayers all the while. Fish stories, after all, are something that many folks intuitively know how to interpret.

31 Flavors

Princeton Theological Seminary, nestled next to its Ivy League sibling university, has never welcomed my advances. Although I’ve long ceased keeping the myriad rejection letters I’ve received over the years and now prefer to throw them in the recycle bin unopened, in my recollection I’ve applied to Princeton Seminary more times than any other school. Given the historic connection between the seminary and my alma mater of Edinburgh University, I often wondered why I never even merited an interview. After all, I live less than 20 miles away and they wouldn’t even have to pay for gas. So it was that I found a recent reference to “Princeton Theology” so interesting. Not every seminary gets to name its own brand of poison.

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Princeton Theology refers to a movement that helped establish the culture that would give us the dubious gift of Fundamentalism. I have never been a Presbyterian, but I have attended their institutions, and one of the characteristics I’d often noted is that Calvin’s thought, in particular, often left me chilled to the theological bones. Assured of his own place in heaven, his theology seemed designed to keep others out. People, being what they are, naturally want to be on the winning team, especially in the eternity game. Reformed thought, therefore, was often perceived as cold and somewhat unfeeling. Predestination is, after all, determinism. Princeton Theology, beginning in the early nineteenth century, was intended to try to introduce a somewhat cozier evangelicalism to the sternness of Presbyterian theology. You may be condemned to Hell, but there’s no reason you shouldn’t feel good about it. After all, the divine plan trumps human need every time.

The approach of the twentieth century saw an increase in evangelical fervor throughout the United States. The growing number of flavors of Christianity led many to wonder what the true vanilla was. The answer, self-proclaimed, to be sure, was Fundamentalism. If you’ve never attended a gathering of theologians, you might not shudder as much as I do while typing these words, for such a conventicle has enormous power. Indeed, the Niagara Bible Conference was able to do what the Council of Nicaea was not—distill the essence of true Christianity that could be accepted by all believers. Unless, of course, one was raised in a Catholic or Orthodox tradition. Princeton Theological Seminary is not a Fundamentalist institution, but even a well-meaning attempt to make Christianity more palatable might lead to too much vanilla. In a world of 31 flavors, perhaps paradise tastes different to everyone, depending on the formula.

Back to School

“We want to make certain that we view culture through the eyes of faith, that we don’t view our faith through the eyes of culture.” The words are those of Stephen Livesay, president of Bryan College, according to a recent New York Times article. Bryan College in Dayton, Tennessee, already famous as the school that evolved out of the Scopes Monkey Trial, has been toying with adding a more specifically fundamentalist statement to its panoply of faith. Instead of stating simply that humans (more precisely, “man”) were (was) created by God, Livesay wants to clarify that this means by special creation, no evolution involved. Hey, we’re all thinking it. Why not just say it?

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With the characteristic, journalistic eye-rolling that inevitably accompanies stories about creationism, I frequently wonder why there aren’t more calls to try to understand this viewpoint. It’s easier to condemn and say that narrow minds can’t widen out, but some of us who had believed in Bryan’s hypothesis at one time have managed by dint of reading and reason to climb our way out of the slime. If we understood what made literalism so appealing, we might be able to figure out why only America lags behind the developed world in accepting what is otherwise universally regarded as a fact. Instead, faculty members nationwide willing to call this into question are summarily fired and nobody bothers to do a thing to support them. Collateral damage of the culture wars. Perhaps we should add a statement about not letting the door hit you on your way out.

Evolution through natural selection stabs very deeply into the heart of human self-worth. We still refer to other animals as “lower” than us, and we exploit them in any way we see fit. Then we don’t wonder why being told you’re just like them isn’t disturbing. This is trench warfare. Lines in the sand dug deeper and deeper. Those who believe in creationism aren’t simple. Even with all our space telescopes and Mars rovers, we’re told the most complex thing known to humanity is still its own brain. And that brain makes people with Ph.D.s think that they’re special—either a separate creation by an invisible god, or because they can recognize how irrational our own brains make us. No intelligent being would want to understand why this is so by studying it rationally. That would make far too much sense.

Saints and Serpents

Santa Barbara feels like paradise.  To a guy who grew up under the gray clouds and sometimes cruel winters of the northeast, the sun-washed placidity of the California coast feels almost surreal.  I’d never witnessed a flight of pelicans before, or visited a university campus that felt more like a spa.  Nothing introduces trouble into paradise like guns.  As we are beginning to try to make sense of yet another mass shooting involving college-aged kids, the somber-faced newscasters talk about how difficult it is to handle mental illness as they fret over seven more coffins that should never have been necessary.  It’s the right of Americans to own guns.  It’s the heritage of many to experience mental illness.  Elliot Rodger only had three guns and over 400 rounds of ammunition in his car.  Where’s Charlton Heston when we need a little comfort now?

 

America’s love affair with firearms is too protracted and entrenched simply to turn back the clock.  Guns are functional devices, but their deterrent force seems effectively only on those who don’t own them.  We’ve opened Pandora’s box and shook the last bit of hope out of it.  College is the stage of growing up where we learn about what life has to offer.  Choosing majors, meeting potential mates, gaining a measure of freedom.  Freedom.  Those who own guns don’t seem to appreciate how unbalanced this makes the rest of us feel.  When I walk behind someone smoking on the city streets, I can’t help but think that I’m doing nothing to foul the smoker’s air.  If only I had a gun.

 

One of the most poignant scenes in the Ellis Island museum is where the potential immigrants are being tested for mental illness.  As a hopeful paradise, we seemed to say, we don’t want to invite any problems ashore.  Mental illness is not the fault of the sufferer.  Making guns available to those who suffer depression and rage is madness.  And despite the rhetoric, the only one with gun in hand who ever seems to stop the rampage is the killer himself, by turning his own on the victim and perpetrator.

 

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Standing on a beach in Santa Barbara, you are looking out over five thousand miles of placid, unbroken, blue water.  The sky and the ocean seem to blend together.  A scoop of pelicans flies overhead, becoming lost in the sun.  And there is a serpent wrapped around a tree somewhere nearby.  There always is.

The Price of Flags

As a child, Memorial Day signaled the start of summer. Most of the time it announced that the obligations of school were nearly over and that was sufficient cause to celebrate. It was not until well into adulthood that I realized the holiday commemorated those who’d died in the armed services. I’d noticed the flags in cemeteries, of course, and we often visited the graves of civilian ancestors buried close enough to reach. The message did not penetrate my head, however, that all of those little flags should be telling me something. I grew up not knowing my father, but I did know he was a veteran. When all his children gathered for a (mostly) impromptu picnic yesterday, for the first time in well over thirty years, I realized how much of a mystery he was to me. At his funeral the flag on his coffin was presented to my older brother as part of military tradition, although he had died in peacetime, and pretty much isolated from all his progeny. It is a somber thought even now, although it was eleven years ago.

I have been a pacifist since my youngest days. Sure, I played with toy guns and G. I. Joe, but that was the culture of kids growing up during the Vietnam War. Only vaguely did we realize the actual horrors that were happening daily thousands of miles away. In my mind there was no reason to go to war. In Sunday School we were taught to settle our differences nicely, even if it meant that you had to be cheated or take less for yourself. This always seemed the central tenet of Christianity to me, and I wondered why the most conservative of Christian presidents seemed the most hawkish, the most ready to sacrifice the fathers, sons, brothers, and now mothers, sisters, and daughters of others for so little. The number of flags even in that little country graveyard where my grandparents were buried haunt me.

We still have members of the armed forces over seas. The military budget of one of the most prosperous nations on the planet is astronomical. We can now kill with drones so that we don’t even have to see the carnage we create. When did the lives of young adults become small change? I know it’s idealistic of me, and probably terribly naive, but I still can’t make sense of our cultural perception of how cheap human life can be. Maybe I’m just a little overly sentimental about a father I never really knew. But looking over my siblings, I see that he produced some nice, generous, and peace-loving children over half a century ago. And while we have our picnics and enjoy a rare day off of work or school, thousands of silent flags will be flapping in cemeteries all across this country reminding us that better ways exist to resolve our differences. If only we could take a holiday from war and violence we might see fewer flags and even more holidays.

Photo credit: Remember.

Photo credit: Remember.

Buttons and Bows

I don’t remember what year it was, but I remember precisely where. On one of my countless trips out back—to or from school, to burn the paper garbage, pet the dog, or wander in the woods—I noticed something poking out of the dirt. The path between my step-father’s house and garage was well-traversed, and a little rise there was bald at the top, and what I saw emerging from its underground lair was round and dull. I’ve always had fantasies of buried treasure, so it is difficult to pass by anything suggesting a coin on the ground. This turned out to be a button. Not a regular, button, however. This was clearly military, and old. It was just appearing from a long rest under the ground and I didn’t know how long my step-father had lived in that house, but it had obviously been many years. There was no internet those days, but it soon became clear from my amateur researches that this was a Civil War era button. It still had a scraggly bit of dark blue thread attached. I never bothered to dig to see if the rest of the soldier was there.

Western Pennsylvania, while far from the striking Revolutionary history of the eastern part of the state, had seen its share of military transients. George Washington had established a fort in nearby Franklin, where I was born, and I was sure that more than a few Civli War soldiers had tromped through this area, although it was far from Gettysburg. I treasured that button and kept it with the very small coin collection I had amassed. It just so happened that our minister was also a coin collector. He took me to coin shows and we would sometimes exchange old pennies. One day he told me about his button collection. I mentioned my find, and he showed a great interest. In fact, he promised he’d complete my wheat-back collection from 1909 to 1958 in trade for my button. He ended up with my button, but never finished my penny series before some bishop shipped him off to another parish. History had slipped through my fingers.

Repeating patterns

Repeating patterns

Patterns are reinforced by repetition. One of the severe beauties of Manhattan is the rows and rows of identical windows. Patterns also persist in time. I stopped collecting coins ages ago, but I still squirrel away any wheat-back that lands in my pocket. Even in average condition a “wheatie” is worth double its face value. But face value is not always what it seems. Value lies in that in which we invest ourselves. I followed my mentor to seminary only to find myself traded off for many a finer specimen. Uncirculated, likely. This particular piece had been scuffed and banged against others so long that the patina warned that more might be hidden than meets the casual eye. And somewhere in rural western Pennsylvania there may be a dusty corpse just waiting to be discovered. Victims of war come are sometimes just beneath the surface.

Victorian Secret

VictorianAmericaPerhaps it’s because the Steampunk World’s Fair is still on my mind, or perhaps because I’m increasingly curious about the way we came to be how we are, I read Victorian America: Transformations in Everyday Life 1876-1915. In this study Thomas J. Schlereth surveys the main aspects of daily existence during the turn of the nineteenth century into the twentieth. It is sobering to consider how quickly change has accelerated since then. Still, so much of what seems normal today was novel just a century or so ago. Although Schlereth doesn’t devote a chapter specifically to religion, he does tie it in with its natural analogue, education. We quickly forget that education was largely established because of religious principles. You can’t tell it today, but one of the main impulses behind higher education was the desire to educate people about the truths of religion so as to improve society.

Also developing in the late part of the nineteenth century was a new religious movement that considered five principles to be fundamental to Christianity. What’s more, those who promulgated this outlook also claimed it was true from the beginning of Christianity, although we know this is decidedly false. The inerrancy of Scripture, the virgin birth, Jesus’ divinity, the second coming, and atonement through Jesus’ sacrificial death—a few concepts that had rudimentary form earlier in the religion’s history—became non-negotiable. Fundamentalism, a new religion, was born in this era and claimed a right to parse true Christianity from false Christianity. This virulent form of belief quickly became politicized, and the relationship between religion and politics clearly impressed Americans from early days. We still reap its whirlwind.

Ironically, the Victorian Era, as designated by Schlereth, saw the birth of the Social Gospel. Doctrine wasn’t the first question on the minds of these reformers, but the human condition was. Yes, they tended towards Fundamentalism, but those who believed in the Social Gospel wanted first of all to eliminate human suffering and misery. It was they, not the Fundamentalists, who came up with the question, “what would Jesus do?” Education and religion eventually divorced, and the Fundamentalist children grew ever stronger in their conviction that they alone were right. The First World War brought a crisis to an optimistic culture that believed the second coming was just around the corner. Of course, we’re still waiting. In the meantime, if you’d like to learn how we got here, Victorian America is not a bad way to pass the time.

Double Blind

When I read Isaac Asimov’s three laws of robotics as a child, I assumed that I’d not live to worry about them in real life. What we don’t know can indeed hurt us. Time magazine frightens me sometimes. This week’s offerings include a small blurb about drones. When I was a kid, a drone was a bee—dangerous in its own right—or it was a verb used to describe an uninspired teacher or preacher’s monotoned wisdom. Now drones are robotic planes that can operate themselves without human input. Time reveals that technology has been developed that would allow drones to kill without human input. Asimov’s laws have become truly science fiction. Proponents argue that “collateral damage” might be minimized if we allow robots to kill with precision, and some have argued that the research should be prohibited. The fact that it has been developed, however, means the line in the sand has been crossed. If it has been done once, it will be done again.

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Even as a daily user of technology, a deep ambivalence besets me. Maybe if it weren’t for the fact that every once in a while my computer (most often at work) freezes up and issues a command I can’t understand, I might feel a little more secure. Instead I issue a ticket for IT and when they call on me sometimes even a specialist can’t figure out what went wrong. Once the bullets are flying it’s a little too late to reboot. Maybe I’m just not yet ready to crawl into bed with a technology that might kill me, without feeling.

Just five pages earlier Time notes that 1 in 5 is the “Ratio of people who would have sex with a robot, according to a U.K. study.” All things are fair, it seems, in love and war. The part of the equation that we haven’t accounted for in our artificial intelligence is that thought requires emotion—which we don’t understand—as much as it requires reason, upon which we have only a toddler’s grasp. And yet we continue to build more and more powerful devices that might kill us with ease. Isaac Asimov was a prescient writer and a forward thinker. He was from the generation that aspired to ethics being in place before technology was implemented. At least as an ideal. We’ve reversed the order in our world, where ethics is continually playing catch-up to the new technologies we’ve invented. Now it’s time to decide whether to make love to it or to say our final prayers.

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Eds and op-eds are popping over the Supreme Court decision to allow sectarian prayer at Greece, New York town council meetings. Some citizens complained that the prayers made them feel disrespected and excluded. Who hasn’t from time to time? I’m no advocate of government-sponsored religion, but I do wonder how we can live in a society in which the mere mention of God offends some as much as the “f word” offends others. Are we, perchance, getting a little thin-skinned? After several long years of neo-con rule, we have learned that opposition is a form of treason, and that conflicting opinions cannot coexist. As an erstwhile teacher of religion, the implications make me shiver. Isn’t the point of learning about religion to train people in toleration? If I sued every time I was offended, I’d be the richest man in the country.

Ironically, the United States is one of the rare cases of a developed, “first world” nation where skirmishes over religion often and vocally take center stage. We have, as a society, dismantled the apparatus of dispassionate, scholarly discussion of religion (“no need for it,” “budget can’t afford it,” “superstition and nonsense”) and wonder why it always brings us to verbal blows. Religion is that which we can’t define, but we can surely fight about. We’re offended by public prayers, the wearing of hijab, and idols to the Ten Commandments on the courthouse lawn. Religion, like sex, is relegated to private places only, but for diametrically opposed reasons. What are we so afraid of?

Lost in the clutter.

Lost in the clutter.

We have no trouble when someone with private money spends it to introduce religion into the public sphere. You can walk down the street in Manhattan and see crosses outside churches and “Jesus saves” scrawled in the cement of well-trod sidewalks. Nobody seems to be offended. Finding practitioners of the “exotic” religions of Hinduism, Buddhism, Sikhism, Vodou, Theosophy, and Scientology is hardly a challenge in a city of millions. Over what is there anything to be offended? I’m offended by those with too much money keeping everyone else below them because the law says that they can. I’m offended by those who pollute our common environment because they can afford lawyers to find loopholes. I’m offended by those who use their religion to oppress women and non-believers. Those who want to pray to a god, any god, before a civil meeting, as long as that god demands nothing from non-believers, aren’t hurting anyone but those who never learned to agree to disagree.

Akedah

AbrahamsCurseViolence, in its most basic form, is to be blamed on evolution. Not the theory of evolution, but the fact of it. More precisely, violence is a reflex of the struggle for existence. To live animals have to eat and to eat, many have evolved to kill. While violence is endemic in the world, it isn’t so rampant that species overkill their own kind. That’s rather rare, actually. Human beings have engaged in violence against one another for our entire history, and it is only within the last century or so that we’ve made any concerted efforts to stop violence against those who are different than ourselves. Among the impulses both advocating and quelling violence is religion. Bruce Chilton’s important study, Abraham’s Curse, scours the monotheistic family tree for information on why all three major Abrahamic faiths advocate martyrdom. Or more disturbingly, why they insist on sacrifice, even of our own species.

Chilton begins with the story of Abraham and Isaac. The Akedah—the binding—or near-sacrifice of the beloved son. Since Judaism, Christianity, and Islam all share this story, and since it sets the tone of a God who seemingly demands human sacrifice, Chilton explores its implications and possible origins in sacred violence. Sacrifice predates any written records, although, as Abraham’s Curse points out, it became an established fixture in urban culture when temples began to play an important role in ancient society. No one knows why we sacrifice. By the time writing came along, it was already an established part of the picture. When the book of Genesis was penned, the story of the binding of Isaac became sacred scripture. Even in the earliest days of biblical interpretation scholars puzzled over what was going on here and its chilling implications. God, after all, comes up with the idea that Abraham should be tested with the cruelest of tests. Although the Bible isn’t explicit on the point, Abraham and Isaac never appear together again after the incident until Abraham is safely dead.

Building on this common story, Chilton takes the reader through the stories of the Maccabees where Judaism develops the concept of martyrdom, through Christianity where some actually begged for it early on, and into Islam, which still practices animal sacrifice. The idea that it is noble to lay down your life, and worse, the lives of others, points to a guilty Abraham who is a paradigm of faith. An Anglican priest, Chilton is no angry atheist. He does not, however, pull any punches. If monotheistic traditions gave us a violent heritage, they can also work to dismantle it. Ironically, it is when religions are in the ascendent that they exercise their power to perpetrate violence. All three major monotheistic religions officially advocate peace and justice. But somewhere in our deepest human experience, we know what it is to feel hunger and what an opportunistic animal does about it. Abraham’s Curse does offer solutions, however, if only we could get human beings to put down their spears and read.

Future Shock

The Jehovah’s Witnesses are nothing if not persistent. Unemployed and huddling fearfully at home during the day a few years back, I answered the door and had a talk with the local missionaries. I explained that I was a biblical scholar and not open to be swayed to new religious sensibilities, but that didn’t stop them from trying to convince me otherwise. They were oh so polite, however, and sending them away seemed like the height of rudeness. The Witnesses have roots in my home territory, and I have a soft spot for religions originating in Pittsburgh. Despite the fact that I’ve had a day job now for about three years, they still routinely stop by and leave tracts behind. One of the most recent ran a headline “Can Anyone See the Future?”

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Of course the story inside quickly turns to prophecy and the age-old, if false, idea that biblical prophets were fortune tellers. Still, the popular conception among the public is just that: prophets see the future. In the Bible prophets are primarily social critics. They cry out against injustice, exploitation, and false religion (!). One thing they don’t do is see the future clearly. Isaiah had to be revised at least three times in the writing. Nevertheless, prophets are engaging figures. They are non-conformists who rail against a system that takes advantage of those who are helpless—not weak, but helpless. Many people are rendered helpless by society. One size can’t possibly fit all. And yet we keep the cover closed on those nattering prophets and pump our money into a capitalist engine that is fueled by human effort and spews the helpless out as exhaust. We could use a good prophet now and again.

The question about seeing the future, however, keeps coming back to me. It might have been a good talent to have some thirty years ago as I was pondering a college major and a career that would take me deep into the Bible. If I could see the future—renting an apartment for an extortionate amount of money for the privilege of living near a city where all my efforts would be poured out to help others make money off religion while asking people with the same degrees I have to write the books that I should be authoring—would I have taken this route? Or would I, as a local boy, have taken the warning of Charles Taze Russell and made my living through haberdashery. Is it any different than balderdashery? Would I have even opened the door? Only a prophet can tell.

Gorilla Whale

Monster Boomers grew up with Godzilla. Among the many monsters on offer on a Saturday afternoon, Godzilla was one of the most obvious fakes, but also among the most poignant of realities. Even as kids in the 1960s we knew about the atomic bombs that had been dropped on Japan. We knew, at some level, that we had come to a point where one species could destroy its entire habitat and that we had obliterated millions of our own kind in just the past half-century, let alone the millennia prior to that. Godzilla represented not just a man in a rubber suit, but the fear of what we could bring upon ourselves. Radiation, burning, the terror of Japanese citizens, and yet, that odd sympathy for the monster. Metaphors were growing much faster than the half-life was decaying. Godzilla became a lasting symbol of both childhood and adult awareness.

I haven’t seen the Godzilla that opened in theaters this past weekend. Inevitably, I eventually will. The 1998 version came pretty cheaply on DVD at a local video store a decade after its release, and I saw then that the monster had lost its emotional appeal. The original, compelling Godzilla was now just another monster to be destroyed. Instead of representing the environment fighting back, it was the environment waiting to be exploited. A shift had taken place and Godzilla was less godlike than before, but more terrifying. Monsters can be lovable, too.

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H. R. Giger, Time reports, died this past week. Giger was involved in creature design for the new Godzilla, and the memorial by Richard Corliss notes that he was inspired by H. P. Lovecraft, among others. Lovecraft gave us the old gods, and although the original Godzilla was about the horrors of nuclear war, there is a streak of Lovecraftian righteousness to it. The universe does not care for us. We invent gods, or monsters, or both, for that. Godzilla, as originally conceived, was never really that scary. What people could do to each other, and their planet, was. Sometime in the next decade, I’ll watch the newest Godzilla, and in the meantime, I hope that the message of the original somehow manages to sink in. We Monster Boomers can be quite naive that way.

In Our Own Backyard

That monk walking towards me looks a little suspicious. Perhaps it’s that guy with a top hat and weird gun strolling next to him with a waxed mustache and carefully sculpted beard. Like a page ripped from ComicCon, the Steampunk World’s Fair draws people from all across the east coast (perhaps even further afield) to Piscataway, New Jersey, or some venue near Rutgers, every spring. In a world where work routinely stifles creativity, a weekend of subculture is about as good as it gets. As a veteran of over two decades of Society of Biblical Literature meetings, I’m used to large conferences. Only this is much more fun. The Steampunk World’s Fair draws some 4,000 people, most of them baroquely costumed, to a sleepy corner of an overly developed industrial corridor, courtesy of Jeff Mach and Widdershins LLC. I met Jeff Mach at Steampunk City last October. A natural promoter, he has a way of getting events noticed.

Steampunk is more than a literary genre. It has become an eclectic mix of the technical and supernatural, the scientific and the absinthe-laced dreams of fantasy. An element of H. P. Lovecraft fandom is clearly present at the World’s Fair, as is an interest in Victorian spiritualism. Indeed, it would not be difficult to concoct a religion out of this heady brew. Like most human cultures, there is no pure form here. Vendors will be glad to accept your money, but true artists put great effort into unique pieces of creativity and style. I’m here, not feeling entirely safe surrounded by such strangeness, wondering if this isn’t a natural outgrowth of what happens when a technically oriented society too long denies its emotional subtext.

Role-playing is catharsis. Many of us spend our days feeling relatively powerless in a capitalistic system that is overwhelming and stifling. Thomas Piketty meanwhile suggests that extreme economic inequality leads to a breakdown of a system that favors too few. Although restraining himself from the economic implications, Frans de Waal notes the same phenomenon among primates that we insist on calling lower than ourselves. Bread and circuses, we know, only kept imperial Rome going for so long before it collapsed under the weight of inherited greed. Under great pressure, the people will play. This feels a bit heavy for the Steampunk World’s Fair, however. I can’t recall the last time I saw robots rubbing elbows with bearded, cross-dressing nuns, and nobody thought any of this was out of the ordinary. Or maybe it’s just the absinthe-flavored truffles talking. I know where I will be, in any case, come next May.

A typical sight.

A typical sight.

Genizah Bible

Overproduction is a survival strategy among many animal and plant populations. Just consider the number of acorns under one oak tree, or “propellers” under a maple in the spring. Swarms of ants or the legendary multiplication of rabbits. It’s as if nature knows most won’t survive, so you’d better prepare plenty. The same applies in the publishing industry. Every book is a gamble, and you can’t know which one will sell out and which one will collect the dust of ages on a warehouse shelf—a shelf you have to pay dearly to lease. This applies to best-sellers as well, such as the Bible. By almost any standard the Bible is among the best selling books of all time. Literally more than a billion have been printed. It exists in multiple translations and in many languages. And many copies end up sitting on the shelf. So many, in fact, that eventually a kind of limit is reached and you either need to rent another warehouse or thin the stock a bit. In my position, knowing what other publishers are doing is vital, so buying their Bibles is important. Then someone else needs your shelf-space.

A genizah is a repository for “retired” sacred scripture featured in some synagogues. Texts that are too sacred to toss into the garbage when they’re worn out may be buried among others of their kind in a genizah. Well, a storage room at work isn’t exactly a genizah, but it is a room where hundreds of out of print Bibles lie forgotten. Salvation in dry storage. As the new kid in the department, I get to clean the closet. Our own Bibles we are able to sell, but the hundreds amassed from other publishers over the years, well, we aren’t running a genizah here.

My instructions are: “see that dumpster over there?” For a kid who grew up believing that it was an order of sin even to place another book on top of a Bible, the idea of filling a dumpster with the good book presents a crisis of a greater magnitude. The simply is no room in the inn. Besides, I’ve lost a job or two already. And I’ve seen the damage that Bibles can wreak in the wrong hands. Still, I followed the Bible through three degrees, and in some form or another my entire life has revolved around that book. But I’m talking like an idolator. Bibles are big business. Few Bible publishers can’t turn a profit. And profits, we all know, lead us to produce even more.

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