One of the most compelling characters of the Bible is John the Baptist. Unconventional and non-conformist, he speaks with unquestioned authority based on pure conviction. Baptism comes in many forms. When we moved our daughter into her dorm room, we found water from the HVAC vent dripping on her bed. I’ve been similarly baptized on NJ Transit buses in the summer when the condensation gathers just above my head. (Of course, being on the bus, I’m always hoping that it’s only water.) Considering how well HVAC contractors seem to be paid, it is always a wonder to me that little things like leaks can’t be sought and settled. Water always seeks the lowest point. In baptism a person is plunged even lower, beneath the water. It’s kind of like drowning.
John the Baptist with the number of the HVAC guy
I was baptized in a river (or a creek that passed for a river in my part of Pennsylvania). Our church didn’t believe in infant baptism, so I was old enough to know that I was to be held under the surface for a second or two—a frightening prospect for a non-swimmer like me. It turned out alright, as these things generally do, and my ten-year-old sins were washed away to be somebody else’s problem further down stream.
The origins of baptism are somewhat of a mystery. Many religions include purification rituals, including Judaism. Judaism, however, never seems to have taken ritual washing to the level demanded of John the Baptist. Even he had a rather tepid view compared to that of later Christians who made salvation without it impossible. It is perhaps the implicit admission of shame, or possibly the public spectacle of it all that makes it such a rite. Being rained on in the presence of a priest doesn’t count. Nor does, in some traditions, a mere trickle on the head. The victim must be cut off from the air above. Religion does insist on a fair bit of threat for believers as well as non. And so the water drips. Of course it’s a holiday weekend so they can’t get the maintenance guy to fix it until at least Tuesday. As we wait we know that the water will always continue to seek the lowest point.
In these days of high technology, remembering childhood might be seen as cowardly nostalgia. When driving my daughter back to college, however, sometimes I need a little nostalgia. So it was that we passed a pleasant couple of hours listening to Little Orley stories told by Uncle Lumpy. Having read ancient history for years, I don’t mind saying that I was a devoted fan of Captain Kangaroo as a child, and Mr. Green Jeans was one of the reasons. Before the Captain, Green Jeans (Hugh Brannum) had recorded a set of radio stories about Little Orley, beginning in 1946. (Lest readers get too driven by nostalgia, I wasn’t around for the original broadcasts.) In the small town of Franklin, Pennsylvania, across the state from where Brannum died, our library had a record of some of the episodes from his radio show. As a child I listened to these tales so much that I still have parts of them memorized to the word. The web brought Little Orley back to me, and now anyone can purchase the tales that I had gone for decades without hearing. Driving through eastern Pennsylvania on an emotionally laden journey, Uncle Lumpy seemed the perfect fare.
A few facets of the program struck me anew. Little Orley stories, for those unfortunate enough never to have heard them, are tall tales about a farm boy that involve all manner of hypostatized natural phenomena. Animals, plants, the moon, clouds, and even pancakes talk and act like humans. Or gods. Orley encounters these all with no hint of surprise, and yet goes to church on Sunday and Wednesday night for prayer meeting. The God in these stories is anything but a jealous deity, sharing the stage with a king of the oceans, lakes and seas that can transform a person to a fish, or with mysterious voices that can make a boy a worm and a worm a boy. Leprechauns gambol through the woods, and snowmen amble about trying to help with farm chores. Stories like these in the Bible are now considered factual, right Balaam? In the 1940s they were standard fantasy for children.
Now we’ve come to an era of biblical literalism that fears and despises challenges to the single God of sacred writ. In Little Orley, however, a message of tolerance (with some notably politically incorrect caricatures) predominates. Orley is time and again in situations where those who are different should be, and inevitably are, treated as equals. Even God gets some help from talking bats who ring the bell to bring the faithful to church when the sexton breaks the bell-rope. Change, I know, is inevitable. As these miles disappear behind me, I can feel it keeping pace, eventually to eclipse me. Progress is good, but sometimes the way ahead is best found by looking back in wonder.
Posted in Bible, Deities, Just for Fun, Memoirs, Popular Culture, Posts
Tagged Balaam, Hugh Brannum, Little Orley, Pennsylvania, tolerance, Uncle Lumpy
Reality seems more and more intangible all the time. Perhaps this is because I can remember a time, not so long ago, when sitting in front of a computer all day would have been unthinkable. Or maybe it is because when I stepped outside to go for a jog, I found a piece of yesterday’s mail lying on the front lawn. Not that it was terribly important, but it was a stamped piece of mail with my name on it. Soaked with dew. Unread. To err is human, so I wouldn’t have worried about it so much if it hadn’t have happened before. In my days of unemployment, I could hear the postal carrier come onto the stoop, talking away on a cell phone, negotiating the mailbox as if it were a nuisance. Then one day I found a bill that I had put out to be delivered on the sidewalk. The landlord once called, wondering where the rent was. We’d mailed it a week ago, but to this day, years later, it never arrived. I know I’m old fashioned, but a stamp used to mean something.
As a child I was a half-hearted philatelist. At the local hobby store you could buy photo-album knock-offs specifically for stamp collecting. Stamps were a promise from the government. I always considered the fact that they were engraved—like dollar bills and liquor bottle labels—to mean that they were serious. There was more than an implied contract here. A stamp meant delivery. Long I would linger over the empty spaces of my stamp album preprinted with the images of the missing stamps. I thrilled to find one of the Grange, although I had no idea what a Grange was. The one with the legend of Sleepy Hollow I coveted with all my youthful imagination: Ichabod Crane being forever chased by the headless horseman. Stamps from other parts of the world were virtually unknown in my small town. When they came, it was like visiting an exotic location in our own living room.
A few years back I noticed that stamps were no longer engraved. Printed on a printer not so different from the one that sits on my desk, they have lost their souls. Although their costs have continued to rise, they no longer guarantee delivery like they used to. There was a covenant involved. You licked the stamp, putting it in intimate contact with your body, and the government would ensure the recipient would receive it. I’m outside holding a soggy postcard with my name on it. This one made it to within just yards of its goal before falling, unnoticed from the hand or bag of a mail carrier. We all use email anyway, don’t we? I remember a day as a college sophomore when I had never sat before a computer screen. The world was right there in front of me, inescapably real. Something has happened since then, but I have to admit that I don’t miss licking stamps. I just wonder if reality has really changed.
Angels, demons, djinn, watchers, giants, and a healthy dose of fantasy pervade Nancy Madore’s novel, The Hidden Ones. In this present world where, I’m told, the supernatural is irrelevant, it is pleasant to come across a work of fiction that delves so deeply into the pagan roots of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Monotheism does have its own skeletons in its capacious closets. Madore is a novelist who insists on prying open those doors long shut, and spinning a tale that involves first responders, shady military officers, and a band of rather hapless archaeologists. And Lilith. Throughout the story Madore comes up with clever etiologies for stories that will appear in canonical form much later, and at one point I couldn’t help wondering if the screen writers of Noah had read her book. Well, actually, The Hidden Ones is the first of a trilogy, Legacy of the Watchers. I’m sure the next two books will contain many surprises as well.
The Hidden Ones put me in mind of Michael Heiser’s novel, The Facade. Both take on the mythology of the Nephilim, the fallen ones about which the Bible tells us enough only to leave us hungry. The early chapters of Genesis are like that. There’s so much going on that those of us reading it many centuries after it was written are left wondering what the full story was. The writers of the Bible had no compunction to disbelieve in monsters and beings beyond the human ken. Nor does the Bible attempt to systematize them in any sustained way. These creatures just are. As the old saying goes, however, fiction has to make sense—those who write with gods and angels have to make them fit into a system.
No doubt, the uncanny occasionally intrudes upon our rational world. The Hidden Ones presents one such intrusion that, ironically, takes some of the fact of the Bible while leaving the theology suspect. We know that even before the Hebrew Bible was complete ancient scribes were attempting similar things. The book Jubilees, for example, tries to fill in some of the unanswered questions of Genesis, including the watchers and details of the flood. Jubilees, however, never made it into the Bible thus depriving canonical status to the backstory that demonstrates how religion often chooses for ambiguity, leaving it to theologians to bring it all into a system. And novelists. And among those novels that tread where even J, E, P, and D quail, is The Hidden Ones.
Posted in Archaeology, Bible, Books, Deities, Genesis, Literature, Monsters, Popular Culture, Posts
Tagged angels, demons, Genesis, Jubilees, Legacy of the Watchers, Michael Heiser, Nancy Madore, nephilim, Noah, The Facade, The Hidden Ones, watchers