As a Child

At a certain age, when alumni magazines arrive (and they will), one starts first by opening to the necrology. Who didn’t make it as far as me, after all? There’s a poignancy to it—knowing that at any age we’re vulnerable—but many of us felt a kind of immortality in our younger years that is only belied and effaced with the passing of time. The articles in the alumni magazines feature those who made it better than you, fellow students and faculty who made a genuine breakthrough. You should be proud of having the privilege, they seem to say, of having attended in her or his shadow. But once in a while, those self-serving articles do touch on the issues of the necrology where I always start. Boston University’s most recent edition boasts an article “You Are What You Feel” by Barbara Moran.

Bost

Intellectuals, in what I like to call the Spock Fallacy, frequently suggest that rationality is the whole story. Or at least the better part of it. If the left brain could only just subdue the right, and all decisions could be logical, wouldn’t this world be a better place? Better, maybe perhaps, but not human. We require our emotions for more than just feeling good. Studies suggest that thinking would be difficult, if not impossible, without them. So Bostonia profiles the work of Natalie Emmons, suggesting that ideas of immortality are more than just cultural relics. Perhaps our brains reason eternity for ourselves from some deep well we’ve not yet discovered. Emmons, and co-author Deborah Kelemen, are psychologists who study children’s idea of prelife—where we were before this. It is pretty difficult to imagine the world getting along without us. But the research suggests that intuition, rather than culture, gives us religious concepts such as immortality.

Substituting intuition for an actual essence, however, puts us in that odd place of using a word we can’t define. Scientists frequently fall back on intuition as an explanation for animal behavior that, in most instances, seems to suggest thinking that couldn’t have been acquired the usual way. How do salmon, fish that hardly seem like doctoral material, know to return home and swim upstream? How do newly hatched sea turtles know to crawl toward the water? Birds and butterflies to migrate? Instinct is a handy fallback, for sure. The research of Emmons and Kelemen suggest that children reason (note) prelife based on observations of actual life. The mind is the product of the brain. In my department at Boston University, another set of variables applied, focused mainly on surviving through the other end of the journey. It is with those in mind that I thumb through the necrology and hope, irrational as it may be to do so, that maybe the children are right.

Hydrofracking

HydrofrackingGenies can’t be put back into bottles, I’m told. They are one of the many things that once done cannot be undone. I had that sense throughout my reading of Alex Prud’homme’s Hydrofracking: What Everyone Needs to Know. Prud’homme does an admirable job in attempting a dispassionate, fair treatment of a subject that is divisive by nature. And destructive. Fracking, once done, cannot be undone. Those who are already against fracking will probably come away from this little book with a sense that ex cathedra statements are slightly more difficult to sustain. The further you read, however, the darker the palette becomes. Yes, fracking provides domestic, fairly clean fossil fuels, reducing dependency on foreign oil. It also has long-term results that remain unknown, with indicators pointing to the worrisome side of the dial. Enough negative correlations exist to give us pause for rumination. Is fracturing the shale a mile underground really a good idea? What about when we run out of shale? And the tremendous waste of water.

Environmental concerns are, by definition, ethical issues. What we do to the environment effects others, and when we effect others ethics is involved. Or should be. One of the startling facts about fracking is that it has been around for a long time. Since the 1940s. Growing up in fracking-friendly Pennsylvania I had no idea that oil companies could move in, break up the ground under my feet, and siphon out the gas and oil they found. It is an industry without strong federal regulation. In fact, due to Dick Cheney’s influence, oil companies are not required to declare what chemicals they are releasing into the environment. Trade secrets can be deadly. It feels like awaking to find Deepwater Horizon in your back yard, not having been aware that the technology to do such massive operations even existed. Who granted permission? The mighty rex lucre.

Prud’homme points out that fracking is not about to go away. Too much money is at stake. Once we’ve learned how to build atomic bombs, incendiaries will ever after seem quaint. We can’t unlearn how to frack, even as we can’t undo the process once it’s done. We have, however, abundant sources of renewable, sustainable energy, but not the will to harvest them. Our economic thinking embraces the myth of excelsior—ever upward! Fracking may not be as dirty as coal or as scary as nuclear waste, but it does leave scars forever beneath the surface. Its genie has escaped its bottle and it is far too capitalist an idea to be suppressed once it has tasted opportunity. Prud’homme’s book is rightly subtitled What Everyone Needs to Know. That which you don’t know can indeed cause harm on a scale we can’t even calculate.

Cowboys and Demons

Cowboys_&_Aliens

Cowboys & Aliens finally came down into my price range. For movies I’d have to view alone, I generally wait until they appear for free on some online movie service or for less then ten dollars at Target. I’ve been waiting for this one since 2011, but my patience paid off. Inspired, so the rumor goes, by the Roswell incident, the film follows the adventures of some old western stereotypes as they encounter the superior power of aliens. The aliens, it seems, are just as materialistic as humans, coming to the old west in an extraterrestrial gold rush. They abduct humans to learn their weaknesses (which really seems superfluous given the technological imbalance between the species) and anger a number of ornery hombres in the process. Then we have an old-fashioned shootout with ray guns versus bows, arrows, and bullets. Human devotion, however, defeats the evolved armor and flying machines of the—well, what are they exactly?

The cowboys scratch their heads, not quite having the consarned concept to categorize these flying machines and their occupants. The local preacher, who is a pretty handy shot, tries to help the confused cowboys, who settle on the term “demons” to describe the extraterrestrials. We forget that in the early part of the last century other galaxies had not yet been discovered, and although we knew of other planets, there was assuredly no way to get there from here. Ugly things that come from the sky are demons. This doesn’t lead to a whole load of speculation—nobody suggests praying to take care of the menace, although the Native Americans resort to a religious ritual to unlock the mystery of where the demonic hoard is hiding. Through her resurrection we discover that Alice is a good alien, planted in the town to stop the invaders from doing to the earth what they did to her planet. And winning the heart of Jake Lonergan (whose very name suggests lone gunman to insiders) along the way.

Since the movie is three years old, I won’t worry about spoilers—if you’re inspired to watch for the first time, however, you might want to do so before finishing this. When Alice figures out how to stop the alien mining operation for good, Jake is left, for the second time, with his woman being killed by demons. Woodrow Dolarhyde, realizing that the outlaw Jake isn’t such a bad guy after all, seeks to console him at his loss. At the end of the movie, in a camera angle that goes from Woodrow to Jake, the focus falls on the cross atop the local mission as Woody says, “She’s in a better place.” All aliens go to heaven. Literally. With echoes of the X-Files, Cowboys & Aliens is sufficient for a dark night where demons and angels are a little too close to tell apart.

The Good, Bad, and Human

VixensVampsVipwesMike Madrid may know more about women in comics than anyone else alive. I’ve commented about his Supergirls and Divas, Dames and Daredevils, and he’s now followed up his previous successes with Vixens, Vamps and Vipers: Lost Villainesses of Golden Age Comics, due out in October. Despite the lament of many a parent that comic books are a waste of time, Madrid demonstrates through a close reading, that some of the most basic issues of society are featured in graphic format. Psychologists have long known that people are visually oriented. We have to learn to read, but we’re born with the knowledge of how to look. Comics, therefore, appeal to the young reader, illustrating the action with exaggerated pictures to underscore the tale. Although the early heroes were generally male, Madrid showed in his previous two books that girls and women were also superheroes, but, as in real life, competing in a world constructed by men for men.

Vixens, Vamps and Vipers flips the coin to see the role played by villains less known than Catwoman (whom he discusses), and torn between the human impulses to succeed and to be good. In fact, the first few pages of the book offer a profound consideration of the terms “good” and “evil” as they apply to the comic book (i.e., the real) world. As Madrid points out: if there were no villains, we would have no need of such colorful heroes. At the same time, evolution has embedded a desire to protect females in the minds of most males—Poe knew that the death of a beautiful woman was the among the most moving of literary images. Still, as Vixens, Vamps and Vipers points out, some of the villains here considered are beautiful and the allure demonstrates that something much more complex is going on beneath the surface. Despite the image of the hero, all people, male and female, constantly struggle with the impulses to do good and evil.

One of the complexities that religions attempt to codify is human nature: are we born good or evil? Are we totally depraved or inclined to strive for divinity? Any honest assessment of humanity, it seems to me, must take into account that we constantly struggle. Total depravity is totally disproved by the many good impulses shown by those of religions outside Calvinism and Christianity, let alone the tendency of humanists and atheists to help others. In fact, in many circumstances good and evil are intricately intertwined. Madrid explores this conundrum with women put in difficult, if fictional, scenarios who must decide which impulse to follow. He’s honest about this. Some will become superheroes despite the hurdles the male champions put in their way, while others will follow the trail that leads to his latest exploration of humanity through illustrated story. Look for Vixens, Vamps and Vipers and enjoy, if secretly, learning something profound about human nature.

New Gods

The new gods are the old gods, apparently. Increasingly I feel myself to be in the old category, but I do glance at Wired once in a while in a vain attempt to recapture my decidedly low-tech youth. I was halfway through July’s edition when I saw “Worship More Gods!” near the top of the page. Of course, gods aren’t what they used to be. The short column, Angry Nerd, was on about all the movies out there featuring Greek gods. Classic gods. Although they’ve been around for a couple of millennia or more, they had apparently fallen into the obsolescence pile for a number of centuries, staring around 1700 years ago. When I was in fifth grade I first heard about these gods (okay, I had watched that ridiculous cartoon Hercules—pre-Disney—as a child, but does that really count?). Mrs. McAlevy (and I sure hope I spelled that right!) felt that kids in my redneck little town needed to know about the gods and heroes. It was some of the most fun I ever had in school. I took a reprise class in college, just for good measure. After all, Clash of the Titans had just shown that gold can rain down like that in Danaë’s secret chamber, if you hit that sweet spot. Myth movies have flourished ever since.

Gods

Can we ever have enough of the old gods? There are lessons to be learned there still. It is safe to say that one of those lessons is that we should not act as the gods do. Almost always they do not stand as moral exemplars. Lest we feel too superior on that point, it is worth pointing out that the God of the Bible sometimes pulls some tricks that we would consider a little less than moral, right, Abraham? The role of the gods is to tell us what to do, not to show us. Impossibly high moral standards, after all, are difficult even for the mighty ones to keep. With great power and little accountability, well, we don’t need to have gods to show us what happens.

I’m not intending to put words in the mouth of the Angry Nerd. The point of the article seems to be that we should share the wealth. There are plenty of other cultures out there with very colorful gods (sometimes literally colorful). In the cultures I’ve studied those gods pretty much fall into the same category as my step-father’s mantra “do as I say and not as I do.” Rank hath its privileges. There’s no doubt that the gods provide some good moral guidance—even the deities of the Canaanites seem to have had pretty clean expectations for humankind. But when it comes to behavior, well, let’s just say they don’t behave like a bunch of nerds. These are the frat boys of the universe. We obey because we know it’s dangerous to do otherwise. So in this day of religious sensibility, perhaps having a few more gods wouldn’t hurt. As long as we keep in mind that every deity has his or her limitations.

Fear of the Known

Social media has become the new reality. Not that rumor ever had much trouble before the internet, but now our cultural memes explode so fast that we have to be wired constantly to keep up. And what we see makes us afraid. The other day I came across a story on channel 7 WSPA website out of Spartanburg, South Carolina. I don’t suppose I have any business needing to know what was going on in South Carolina, but the headline “Mysterious ‘woman in black’ spotted in Tennessee” got my spidey sense going (or my Men in Black sense, but that’s just a bit cumbersome). Was this a female urban legend who shows up after UFO reports and warns the witnesses to keep quiet? The truth is much more mundane. She’s a woman, dressed in black, walking south from Virginia, currently in Tennessee. Police say she has a name and she’s from Alabama. Since she’s all over social media, however, people are worried.

She’s on a Bible mission one woman has claimed. A Blues sister in black? Others claim she’s from an Islamic nation. Some implicate the Pentagon. When someone exhibits unusual behavior our minds turn to religious causes. Why would a person dress in black and walk down the highway? It’s just not done! Must be religion. On YouTube apparently a video shows her arguing about religion with a man in a Wal-Mart parking lot. Where’s the element of surprise there? If there are any firmly fixed social markers they are surely Wal-Mart and religion. Time to be afraid.

Scarcely a day passes when I’m in New York that I don’t see someone doing something peculiar. It’s the new normal. I suppose religion is sometimes the motivation, but I wouldn’t know. The gospel can be pretty difficult to identify definitively these days. You can’t trust someone just because they dress in black any more. After all, we’ve seen agents K and J battling aliens on the big screen since 1997 and there doesn’t seem to be much preaching involved. There is conversion, however, and just a dash of conspiracy theory. That’s more like American-style speculation. Internet fame is remarkably easy for some. Put on your black and walk down the road. And if you see Johnny Cash along the way, there will be no doubt that this is newsworthy indeed.

Bible-thumper or alien?

Bible-thumper or alien?

Candle, Book, and Bell

AmericaBewitchedHaving married into a family descended from the surviving relatives of women executed as witches at Salem, I have long been saddened and fascinated by the story. Not just the story, but also by the cultural milieu. We all know about the witch trials and the tragic massacre of innocents (mostly women) that took place in late Medieval and early modern Europe; the Salem miscarriage of justice came at the very end of that, after the start of the Enlightenment. Owen Davies is also fascinated by witchcraft, and his America Bewitched: The story of witchcraft after Salem is an exploration—mostly via newspapers and court trial records—of witchcraft accusations in America that continued up until about the 1950s. The coincidence of the 1950s with the “witch hunts” of McCarthyism will not escape some readers, and indeed, from the time of Arthur Miller’s nemesis on, those who vociferate against witches have kept rather quiet. Unless, of course, you count those who subsequently feared “terrorists” or any other group that might be profiled. We could learn from history, if we’d let ourselves.

Davies’s book brings together largely overlooked, nearly forgotten instances of how many cultures, including that cultural mix of Europeans who were to become “whites,” feared and sometimes killed witches. The difference from Salem was that almost all of these cases took place at the hands of self-appointed accusers (vigilantes) who hounded, punished, or killed someone suspected of being a witch. Surveys still show that a large percentage of people in the United States, although not a majority, believe in witches. It is an idea that has a primal hold on human psyches, and, as Davies points out, it is often used to explain misfortune. As I read this book I reflected how Americans come across as pretty gullible and not exactly sensible in this matter. The germanic strains of immigrants, it seems, were particularly susceptible to such beliefs. We also find witches, however, among Native Americans and African Americans as well. Misfortunate plays no favorites.

There are those who claim technology will save our culture. The other day a friend reminded me of the third of Arthur C. Clarke’s laws: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” Even the most scientific of us knows, whether or not s/he will admit it, that “spooky action at a distance” does occur. It is perhaps only a matter of time before we find the hidden laws that operate the mechanism, but I can’t help but feel a little bit uncanny when I see more and more lifelike robots operating with what seem like human intentions. Of course, those intentions are programmed by humans. And it is often otherwise rational adults who with gun in hand, up until fairly recent times, accused flesh-and-blood neighbors as witches. America Bewitched can be a scary book, especially since unlike vampires, witches do cast their reflections in a mirror.

On Vocation

“There ain’t no use in complaining,” Bryan Adams once wrote, “when you got a job to do.” If I may be pardoned from removing rock and roll from its love song context. As a guy who’s suffered unemployment several times, I have to agree that having a job is good. Of course, such goodness has its natural limitations. Switching jobs too often means starting out over and over again. In today’s world, that means that at half-a-century-old you might well find yourself having to earn vacation days from nothing all over again. So when family vacation plans were made this year, one of us—the one with a new job—could not be included. My family is out near the west coast while I remain here on the east. Once upon a time we were somewhere in the middle. I’m glad they have the opportunity. This post isn’t about sour grapes, or vacation; rather, it’s about vocation.

I often think about how life has become only earning for the sake of earning. People say you should get a job you like, which is fine if such jobs exist. The jobs I like are now considered beneath me. Not by me, but by those doing the hiring. Where has the sense of vocation gone? Back in the Middle Ages (and I’m not one to suggest that things were necessarily better then) the learned had opportunities. Those who had a skill could be inducted into a guild that would help to ensure job security. We’ve moved to a free agent model where someone can be removed from their natural vocation with nary a thought what they might do next. Detritus of a throw-away culture. For those with highly specialized skills—Ugaritic, anyone?—such severance is like setting one on an ice floe, only crueler. Ironically, the guild offers no help.

Reading about the Transcendentalists reminds me of how restorative the woods are. Emerson and Thoreau, heading off to the forest to commune with the divine. Since this road is blocked for me, I take the one better traveled, into Manhattan where, I’m sure, there is life. Elevators, ubiquitous pavement, quotas and tallies. Prove your worth. Among the students I knew I was accomplishing something. Since then it’s all just numbers. In the woods I don’t count the trees. I don’t demand to know what they’re producing for the good of the company. I don’t question their motives. Outside my window, if I had a window, I would see only stone, concrete, and steel. And inside all I feel are numbers. Can a soul be quantified? I think I would have to side with the Transcendentalists on this one. But that’s not what I’m paid to do.

Once and Future Ape

Battle_for_the_planet_of_the_apesThe original pentalogy of the Planet of the Apes franchise began a slow decline with Beneath the Planet of the Apes. Producing a movie per year from 1970 to 1973, the series died with Battle for the Planet of the Apes. Given that Dawn of the Planet of the Apes has been compared with this original final installment, it seemed time to reacquaint myself with it. The early seventies, as I recall them, were tense times. Social unrest both at home and abroad, coupled with a maddeningly increasing nuclear arsenal, seemed a recipe for disaster. Indeed, the world does end with the second installment of the pentalogy, a scenario set up in the final episode as the Alpha-Omega bomb, guarded by mutants, is declared worthy of reverence. Only through the magic of time travel do Cornelius and Zera travel back to the paranoid 1970s to start the whole series over again. The Battle for the Planet of the Apes, apart from its preachiness, does overflow with religious language and rhetoric. Indeed, it begins with a reading of Scripture from the Lawgiver. Pentalogy or Pentateuch?

Caesar is said to be the savior of apes and, like in the current Dawn, the sympathies of the viewer are with the apes. Gorillas, the frat boys of the ape universe, do indeed cause troubles, with Aldo becoming a kind of Cain who slays a fellow ape, Cornelius. (They even got the initials correct, if reversed.) Religion, and prejudice, it seems, have brought this fictional world to a crux, caught in an endless loop of new futures. As Virgil says, there are an infinite number of lanes on this highway. Presumably, traveling back in time opens up all kinds of possibilities.

Despite the number of reused shots in the film—the first ten minutes or so are simply a recapping of the previous two films—and the unfortunate pacing (how could a climax of two angry apes climbing a tree have possibly dragged on for so long?), the movie does have a message. Race tensions, high at the time, are overtly and covertly addressed. Disarmament is praised. The only future that seems not to exist is for one more movie. Interest moved on to science fiction’s apotheosis in Star Wars just four years later. Once again we would find ourselves in a world of black and white, with simple choices. There was no ambiguity among the Jedi. Still, for all that preaching, equality never did reach its goal. So even with its faults (didn’t we see that same tree-house bombed four times?) it is worth dusting off the Battle for the Planet of the Apes once in a while and pondering better possible futures.

Dead See Scrolls

Despite her ability to overlook my obvious deficiencies, my wife has good eyesight. Last week she spotted an article carried by the Associated Press entitled “Dispute over ancient scrolls changes modern law.” Although many ancient documents (notably those from Ugarit) outweigh the importance of the Dead Sea Scrolls for understanding the religion of ancient Israel, the Scrolls have continued to be headliners. There never seems to be some sort of scandal very far from the Scrolls, and this article by Jennifer Pletz reaffirms that assessment. The name of Norman Golb is familiar to just about any Hebrew Bible scholar. His work on the Scrolls is highly regarded. The story, however, brings the scandal down a generation to Golb’s son Raphael, a lawyer and literature scholar. In a case whose details rival the minutiae of the Scrolls themselves, the younger Golb is accused of sending emails putatively said to have been sent from his father’s rivals confessing plagiarism. To what point, beyond alleged family honor, one hesitates to speculate.

Dead_Sea_Scrolls_Before_Unraveled

“Sculduggery,” J. C. L. Gibson once said, “is always just around the corner in archaeological circles.” The same might be said to apply to the Scrolls. Episode after episode of scholars behaving badly have attended the controversial documents since their accidental discovery on the eve of Israel becoming a state. Ironically, the Scrolls in some symbolic ways represent the struggles of the Israelis. No one doubts their importance, but access has always been an issue. Careers were made and secured by the Scrolls, reaching to the highest academic offices in the land. And yet, we can learn more by turning back the pages of history just a little further.

The Scrolls date from that troubled time period when Christianity was just beginning to emerge from Judaism. Tempers flare at implications masked or insinuated. As if the Scrolls were really the much sought philosopher’s stone. The original generation of Scroll readers is going the way of all nature. Those associated with the more solid tablets of Ugarit have long passed that way already. And yet we still have Bible museums being built and implications left dangling. Law suits are filed and ownership of the Scrolls is disputed. In the twenty-first century scholars are still willing to risk it all on some parchment fragments that have the appeal of the esoteric. Hidden truths, almost apocalyptic, squirreled away in desert caves. Knowledge is indeed money, unless, of course, you actually know how to read the Scrolls for yourself.

Unity in Diversity

UnitariansUniversalistsIn the Simpsons episode “Bart’s Girlfriend,” Jessica Lovejoy steals all the church’s money from the collection plate, leading Mrs. Lovejoy to call out, “Everyone turn around and look at this!” Grampa Simpson whips around saying, “What is it? A Unitarian?” And so the jokes go, back even to my seminary years. The Unitarians, however, are among the most intellectually honest of religions. I recently read David Robinson’s The Unitarians and the Universalists. Although the traditions approached their 1961 union from different angles, they had a common origin: concern over the Calvinism of colonial and early post-colonial New England. The majority religion of the northeast, various forms of Calvinism taught of utter depravity, human helplessness, and, that absolute affront to human intellect now being posited by some materialists: predestination (determinism, in secular terms). The Universalists couldn’t accept that a loving God would make anyone suffer forever. The Unitarians had trouble with several aspects of the theology, not the least of which was the Trinity (as a non-biblical concept). Early Unitarians based their beliefs on the Bible, which, as it turns out, does not support several Calvinistic concepts.

Like all religions, Unitarianism evolved over time. Eventually the unity of God became only one among many possibilities of what one might believe. In fact, doctrine was less important than ethics. It was a true Enlightenment religion. It allowed for the Transcendentalist movement that we all learned about in school, with Emerson wandering in the woods, and Thoreau never wanting to move out of them. They also had room for those who studied the Bible but expressed concerned that Jesus doesn’t really say that he’s God, although obviously some people interpreted it as if he had. Regardless of belief, meeting together was necessary, and eventually the Unitarian Universalist Association came to represent a widely liberal form of religion with Christian roots but rational sensibilities.

Among the marks of distinction of these groups is that, among Protestant denominations, they were among the first, if not the first, to ordain women. When you are less beholden to wooden tradition, all kinds of possibilities emerge. This book was kind of an epiphany for me. I’d been channeled into thinking that “orthodox” necessarily equalled “the good guys,” despite the treatment that I’ve repeatedly received at their hands. It sometimes takes a Gestalt phenomenon to see orthodoxy as not necessarily good. Perhaps the effort to preserve a tradition outdated by a couple of millennia costs far more than it saves. Perhaps we need to become more human, not less. I may not walk the forest with Emerson—he preferred to be alone anyway, from what I understand—but I’ll not be so quick to assume that tunnel vision is true vision either. Not in a world where the Simpsons can teach us as much as The Institutes.

Lobby Hobby

I can recall a time when hobbies seemed less than threatening. Indeed, the idea was to relax, not to lobby. My hobbies—collecting just about anything you could get without money—didn’t involve going to a store. Stamps (because everybody used them back then), coins (ditto), fossils from the local river bank, bottle caps that we collected while Mom was doing the wash at the laundromat, all kinds of handouts from society’s detritus made for many hours’ entertainment. I also collected Bibles. That was when I was old enough to earn some money and spend it on books. And I read those Bibles until I’d run out of versions, then I’d start over again. Now my hobby has come back to haunt me.

According to the New York Times, the Hobby Lobby family is planning to build a Bible Museum in Washington, DC, prompting fears of evangelization. Right there in the nation’s capital, not far from the Mall, a museum showing the importance of the Bible would indeed send a message. But is it really a threat? We live under the judicial decisions of a Supreme Court weighted towards the literal already. It might not hurt to have a museum dedicated to finding out what’s going through our justices’ minds. Clearly it’s not women’s rights. If we wander those proposed halls, we might see that museums are indeed dedicated to outdated stuff that has some importance. Rare are the contemporary museums that show right where we are at the moment. Rarer still, those that show the future that remains undecided. In many senses, Washington is already a museum.

The secular world seems to fear the Bible. It is, however, not going to go away. Although I left literalism decades ago, I’m still pleasantly surprised how much the Bible has to offer by way of insight into human nature and contemplation. You might even find some workable ethics if you can get away from the non-issues of birth control, stem cells, or same-sex marriage. The Bible doesn’t need to be a threatening book. In the wrong hands, it may at times seem like The Book of Eli had its eyes right on the target, but those who would use the Bible to harm others are those who read without understanding the words. No, I don’t think the Green family’s plans for such a museum are innocent. Neither can I believe that hobbies are a $3 billion industry. Reading books and picking up other people’s cast-offs may be the only hobbies you need.

Engraven images?

Engraven images?

Pierogdolia

One of the memorable scenes from Men in Black is when the Arquillian takes Gentle Rosenburg to a restaurant for pierogi. One need not be an alien, or even Polish, to appreciate these dumplings, and a few weeks ago I found myself at a restaurant that offered pierogi on the menu, and I had to bring the leftovers home. When I was reheating them the next day an epiphany of sorts transpired. Now, when I prepare pierogi, I use the more healthy boiling method. The restaurant, however, fried them, leaving characteristic browning. As I flipped the reheating dumplings, a case of pareidolia occurred (prompting the title to this piece by both my wife and daughter, on separate occasions). A discussion of whose face this was ensued. Charles Darwin, Karl Marx, Abraham Lincoln, and Charles Dickens were all suggested, but those attuned to religious thinking know that when a face appears, it must be that of Jesus. Well, a man’s face with a beard, in any case. If it’s female, it must be Mary.

IMG_1454

Pareidolia was always a winner with students, in my teaching days. Our brains are so attuned to finding faces that we actually design them into houses and cars and appliances. We like to see a friendly face. Now in my brain I know this is just fried dough, but my eyes are telling me this is a face on my dinner plate. The tendency is so closely tied to religious sensibilities that we can safely rule out any number of candidates. Of course, if I were to see this same phenomenon in a different culture, my referent would likely be completely different. Still, we seldom see news stories of Buddhists, say, finding Siddhartha Gautama’s image in foodstuffs. (Although, in all honesty I once found a water stain on a saucepan that looked very much like I imagine Confucius appearing.) Is there a deep-set need in our religious culture to find assurance in unlikely places? Are we that insecure?

Apart from the perennial favorites of breads (toast, tortillas, and now pierogi), images of “Jesus” show up in garden shrubs, water stains under highways, clouds, and even stingrays, prompting, a few years back, a website entitled “Stuff that Looks Like Jesus.” Now, I seriously doubt that some kind of transubstantiation has taken place on my dinner plate, but the appearance of a face on my food is always cause for reflection. Food is so essential to animal survival that it is perhaps strange that such images don’t occur more often. It is perhaps ironic that we hear most about it from a leisure-based culture with a cult of food fetishes. I don’t know who showed up on my pierogi, but the evidence is now long gone so it will have to remain a matter of faith.

Secular Sacred

IMG_1472On a family walk in the woods, along came a spider. Actually, the spider had already been there quite a while, given the amount of work that its web represented. Few sing the virtues of spider brains, but there is a captivating symmetry here, an aesthetic that nature endows on the work of one of its most feared yet skillful creatures. As I ponder this web, I can’t help but to consider the word sacred. Oh, I don’t suppose the spider is worshipping an eight-legged, arachnid deity, but there is something more than simply utilitarian about its creation. And I wonder why the sacred is so often shuffled off to the realm only of the religious. Increasingly scientists and philosophers are using the word sacred for a trope when superlatives fail. They don’t mean a guy with a beard on a throne in the sky, but rather those things that give us pause in a busy life to stop and think that something more is going on than just the electro-chemical storm in our heads.

At the risk of offending some, the sacred need not be tied to the gods at all. It is, rather, a sense of reverence toward the amazing world in which we find ourselves. Yes, this web can be measured with precision. Its arachnid host captured and studied. We can count the number of insects it catches as a measure of its efficiency. All this and we still won’t have encapsulated the web in its entirety. The sacred is like that. I don’t know why it is that I find some places special. Why it is I linger outside where my childhood homes once stood, or on the hill where stood the hospital in which I entered the world. Although I’m not divine, these places are sacred. So I pull the car to the side of the road and stare at that lot where our house once stood. It was a web. Fragile and necessary. And it was on the edge of the woods.

A walk in the woods is a form of rebirth. Some of my earliest memories are wandering among the trees. I was, like many children, terrified of spiders. No doubt there were thousands of them here. And yet I cannot keep away. Perhaps it is because nearly every day of the week I trundle to Manhattan and there is nothing around me that doesn’t bear the scars of artificiality. I don’t recall the last time I saw a spider in New York City, apart from a man in a blue-and-red costume pretending to be one. I’m sure they’re here. I’m sure they spin their webs and there are those who marvel at how complex and beautiful they are. The unexpected spider will always frighten me, I suppose. That doesn’t mean, however, when I come upon a web, that I haven’t met the secular sacred once more. Especially if it’s on a stroll in the woods.

Forbidden Zones

Dawn_of_the_Planet_of_the_Apes

I grew up with talking apes. Well, I was actually about six when Planet of the Apes was released, but it quickly became one of my favorite movies. With a screenplay co-written by Rod Serling, and that very unorthodox conceit of evolution playing visibly on the surface, it was the forbidden fruit. Since, according to our fundamentalist doctrine 1) animals can’t speak, 2) evolution never occurred, and 3) the world was going to end long before 3978, we were not prevented from watching what was obviously fiction. And watch I did. There were spin-off cartoons, not to mention the following movie and television series. An unsuccessful reboot by Tim Burton was followed by Rupert Wyatt’s intelligent, if somewhat sentimental version. And I’ve seen them all. Finances being what they are, and, since my family does not share my enthusiasm for the apes, I’ll probably have to wait for the home-viewing release of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes to enjoy the latest offering.

In the meanwhile in a nearly glowing review in this week’s Time magazine, Richard Corliss has indeed whetted my appetite. The original series of Planet of the Apes movies had, like many films of the late sixties and early seventies, a strong, underlying social critique. Yes, one can see only so much of Charlton Heston’s bare chest, but there was something more going on here—something to which we needed to pay attention. The Burton version went for a parsimonious special effects extravaganza, but the storyline was devoid of much underlying reflection. Good ape, bad ape, all the way. Now, as we are moving into the third major incarnation of Pierre Boulle’s dark vision of our distant future, we see that the apes are maybe the real humans here. Maybe they were from the very beginning.

Perhaps because of its ability to slip beneath the Moral Majority radar in the guise of science fiction, the talking apes have been part of American culture for almost my entire life. The original movie introduced the idea of the Forbidden Zone, that region where the truth lay buried, waiting to be discovered. There was a not-so-subtle jab here at a world where politics was continually being revealed as just another human bid for power, and a Cold War was threatening our very existence. We survived and continued to evolve. Still, we find a kind of social catharsis in the apes, and I worry just a little bit at Corliss’s use of the word apocalypse. The apes have always been remarkably prescient. For some of us, they were more than mere entertainment. And so I’ll patiently wait until I can watch the apes alone in the privacy of my home, to learn what the future might hold.