Water Flowing Underground

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

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.

Retro Progress

LittleOrleyIn 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.

Stamp Act

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.

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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.

Esau and Jacob

“Jacob have I loved, but Esau have I hated,” at least according to the recollection of Paul in Romans. One of the most poignant scenes in the Hebrew Bible is the story of Esau. Born as the elder brother, in ancient times one could expect certain privileges. Yes, Esau sold his birthright to his brother over a rumbling stomach, but he still knew that the blessing—the true gift—was still his. That, however, Jacob took from him by deception. Isaac, their aged father, was blind but wanted to bless his firstborn before he died. While Esau was out hunting, Jacob slipped in, in disguise, and stole the blessing before fleeing to Iraq. In Genesis 27, Esau came in as instructed only to find the blessing gone. His weeping has never ceased through the ages as his father blessed him with a sword. Years later, Jacob returned to find his brother a wealthy and powerful man. A man who forgave and forgot. But Paul remembered.

Rubens, The Reconciliation of Jacob and Esau

Rubens, The Reconciliation of Jacob and Esau

Hate is a strong word. As a child the worst punishment I can recall came from saying that I hated someone. That word was worse than a swear. Hatred was not worthy of a loving god. Like Esau, however, we don’t stay young forever. By our sword we make our living. For some of us that sword was the written word that we were told was sacred. The image of big, hairy Esau weeping before his blind father disturbed me. He’d done nothing wrong. In fact, he was simply doing what his father asked him to do when his brother snuck in and took something that my young mind couldn’t even parse out from the birthright earlier bargained. Clearly, however, it was important.

Upon returning home six chapters later, Jacob fears Esau’s righteous wrath. He knows his brother has legitimate cause to hate him. Esau, however, aware that he has enough, welcomes the prodigal home with open arms. There is enough to go around. Even today, with the will to do so, the hatred could be removed. This is a metaphor, not literalism. Genesis is, after all, not history. Stories, however, can convey what facts cannot. Millennia have passed and myths have come and gone. In the simple, if primitive justice of my childhood, you dare not say you hate your brother. Having grown up with brothers I learned that despite conflicts that inevitably arise, hatred is never the answer. Esau forgave, according to Genesis 33. And the land was wide enough for all.

Watchers and (Un)holy Ones

HiddenOnes 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.

Founding Principles

That feeling is in the air. Autumn began to stretch its melancholy fingers into August this year. Even before the month was half over the mornings had that chill in them that sparked the trees to begin their slow process of shutting down for the winter. Not wanting to admit that it was time to send my daughter back to college, I resisted what is one of the most compelling senses of self-abnegation that can be known—fall, in all its glory. When I saw a blog post on the Salem Witch Trials, I knew I wasn’t alone. The nights are already longer, and that sunset over summer’s beach comes earlier each day. Salem has a way of bringing that home to me. Innocent people murdered for fictitious crimes. Much of the fear that led to this miscarriage of justice was, of course, inspired by religion. The colonials had a great fear of new religious movements. Although it is difficult to believe, Baptists were such a new religion at the time. Considering how Baptist sensibilities now drive much of the Religious Right, it is difficult to imagine that once upon a time, being a Baptist could lead to accusations of being a witch.

As much as the Religious Right likes to make claims to a primitivism that is completely fiction (Christianity has always been this way), we have lost touch with what it meant to be a Christian in early America. States (still colonies) had their religious preferences, some even established. If you were a Baptist you’d be most comfortable in Rhode Island. If you leaned Quaker, Pennsylvania was for you. When these disparate colonies banded together into a country, it was quickly realized that religious freedom was the only way for them to work together. The government, the state, could not determine matters of individual conscience. Until, that is, that we could declare that the views of particular individuals on birth control—as informed by their religious authorities—could legally deny their employees full health benefits. Oyer and Terminer, anyone?

Freedom is a beautiful idea. It is a concept that only works, however, if it is shared equally. When one faction claims liberty for itself while limiting it for others, we’ve fallen back into times when the Baptist at your door was more dangerous than the Devil in his Hell. And so we revise our history and make claims that America was founded as a Christian nation. Evidence can be ignored, or, failing that, revised. Nothing is written in stone. When you visit Salem, there is a quiet little park, off the beaten path. Under some weary old trees are a set of stone benches against a stone wall. On each of the benches are engraved the names of those executed for being imaginary monsters. The leaves on those trees are, I’m sure, beginning to turn. Soon they will silently fall, and only those who are made of stone will deny that autumn is upon us again.

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Future of an Illusion

AtlanticHEIf anyone’s premature death has been announced more than Mark Twain’s, it is that of higher education. September’s The Atlantic arrived in my mailbox proclaiming itself the “Education Issue” leading with an article “Is College Doomed?” While I appreciate the headiness of Atlantic articles, they run long and my time runs in the opposite direction. I have to read selectively. Things like paying bills and work vie for my time as well. I flipped it open to the article actually entitled “The Future of College?” by Graeme Wood. Four words in, and I froze. The fourth word is “entrepreneur.” Don’t get me wrong; I’m open-minded. Having seen higher education showing its teeth and claws, I know it isn’t the nice pet that the dean will tell you that it is. Nevertheless, from my viewpoint, the main problem higher education is experiencing right now is entrepreneurial in character. Perhaps it’s old school to say, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” but it is perhaps the most apt phrase to apply to colleges and universities prior to the twenty-first century. And, in my humble opinion, today, while some vestiges can be salvaged.

Oh, I know I’m a dinosaur. I literally finished my formal higher education last century. Still, the experience worked well enough. I can’t express, even with daily posts on this little blog, how much I learned sitting through bachelors, masters, and doctoral programs. None of the institutions I attended was perfect (although Edinburgh came pretty close), but they were largely faculty led, and they all recognized that their primary function was to educate, not to prep for entrepreneurial enterprises. There were business schools for that. You couldn’t learn dead languages in business schools. Or even great ideas beyond those with an economic twist. What hath Nietzsche to do with supply-chain optimization? Oh yes, the death of God. My mistake.

In my younger years, I had no preconceived notion about higher education. My high school teachers and the clergy in my life encouraged me to go to college, despite the fact that nobody in my family ever had. Even though it was only Grove City College, as soon as I got over the homesickness, I realized I was home. Higher education—my assumptions were challenged. I had to learn to weigh the evidence. By the time I was finished, I had learned to create content as well. And then I started to hear that higher education had one purpose only—to prepare the young for the job market. A place that is too often unthinking and uninspiring. We aren’t educating, we are teaching conformity. And those who don’t have jobs don’t have healthcare coverage. Survival of the fittest. Entrepreneurs by definition. A quarter of a century ago I didn’t even know that higher education was sick, let alone dying. When the future begins with entrepreneurs, however, I’m going to side with Mark Twain, even if he is really dead.

Whether the Psalms

How about that weather? Changeable, isn’t it? I have spent a large part of the last few days going over the proofs for Weathering the Psalms, the book I wrote over a decade ago. While I’m excited with having the validation that comes with publication, I worry a bit about the changes that the last decade has brought. Although I live near some impressive libraries, my time is devoted to commuting and working and anyone who has tried to be a serious scholar as a weekend warrior only knows that it is unsustainable. One element that good research absolutely and uncompromisingly demands is time. When I began commuting into New York City three years ago, I taught myself to read on the bus. As someone who easily gets car-sick, this took an enormous effort, but it paid off in the number of books I’ve been able to finish. There are limits, however. Seriously research-oriented academic books do not fare well on a noisy commute or at early hours. As much as we scholars like to think our books are riveting, try reading them at 6 a.m. Perspective makes all the difference. In short, I had to leave the main body of the text of my book as it was a dozen years ago.

There is a lot of good information there. You notice things by laying out all the Psalms that refer to weather side by side. I can’t tell you those things here, since that’s the point of the book, but suffice it to say, I still agree that the material should be published. One of the main reasons is the change in worldview over the last several millennia. Although we like to complain about the weather, for most of us it is merely the inconvenience of being outdoors that brings it to focus. We spend our days behind computer screens, living a virtual reality. But when we have to trespass outdoors—weather awaits us. For those in the world of the Bible the opposite was true. Indoors was shelter, but not insulated like today’s homes. Most of the day would be spent outdoors, weather permitting. They knew a lot more about the practical aspects than we tend to. We, on the other hand, know the science but have tended to forget the experience.

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My book surveys a cross-section of the biblical worldview (the Psalms) for what it tells us about the weather in ancient thought. I suspect others have begun to explore this since I wrote my humble contribution to the discussion. Today I would have done it very differently, but Weathering the Psalms was written by a scholar isolated in a seminary, literally and figuratively in the woods. The fact that other scholars had noticed the weather now and again showed me that the task, though halting, was necessary. Rereading it is like a time-capsule. These were the thoughts of a younger man, employed full-time in a kind of academic setting. Hopeful that the next job would be worthy of tenure. Believing that there was a next job. But the weather is changeable. Indeed, we know it is unpredictable. Despite its archaic cast, I look forward to Weathering the Psalms and hope that it inspires others who are isolated to keep up the effort. Even if it’s raining.

Who Do You Say?

DMZ. What acronym inspires more terror? Or did I mean DMV? I can’t keep my acronyms straight. Nothing reveals the layers of bureaucracy in clearer cross-section than the Motor Vehicle Agency. A trip to the DMV with every conceivable form of identification (usually inadequate) inevitably becomes a multi-trip visit as I’m sent home again and again to excavate some forgotten form to prove my identity. Who am I? Is there any more religious a question? Moral rights, civil rights, human rights, all define who we are. Reading about war recently, I came across the concept of the soldier giving up life for country—a profoundly religious act—based on nation as a kind of deity. A deity that can demand sacrifice. The cost for the nation is slight while the cost for the individual is unsurpassable. It all revolves around the identity of I.

Religion is often presented in terms of the worship of gods or the belief in supernatural powers. Undoubtedly those elements are often involved, but religion is a human enterprise, and at the center of all human enterprises is, well, humanity. Religion is generally associated with a Latin root that means “binding.” The nature of that binding and the easiest religions have no word for religion itself. One way to conceptualize it is the binding of an individual to some cause greater than the self. Community, humanity, deity—something that gives meaning to an existence that remains unsatisfying if it is only individual-focused. In a consumer market that involves choice—we choose our religion. In ancient times, up until modernity, actually, you were born into it. The self may not have existed in the same way that it does now. We install complex rules to ensure that no self (except the rich and powerful) is able to benefit from the system at the expense of the whole.

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In the eyes of most ancient religions humans are identified as those who are in trouble. We’re lost, reincarnated, suffering, fallen and some kind of help is required. In return our response should be one of gratitude. Humanity the subservient. Now that we’ve recognized ourselves as the creators of religion—are not the gods just ourselves writ large?—we once again face an identity crisis. There is no larger religion that binds us. Generals, however, don’t want to die on the field so we need privates. And if ever the police should stop you while driving, there’s no assurance you’ll give them your real name just because it is the responsible thing to do. So we make licenses to prove we can drive and to prove we are who we say we are. No religion need be involved, just papers that prove I am who I say I am. I think of Pilate’s question and ponder this bit of plastic bearing my likeness. I am who the government says I am.

Secret Religion

Recently I read an article about a religion called Sabbateanism. I’d never heard of it before, so I turned to the collective wisdom of the human race—the Internet—and came away only more confused. There are so many religions in the world today that no one person can rightfully claim to be an expert on them all. The Sabbateans, it seems, are a secret sect, so not being able to learn about them should not be surprising after all. A Google search soon suggested reading about Illuminati and I realized I was once again in the realm of the conspiracy theory. A few months ago my wife and I began reading a book on the Freemasons (we both have grandparents who were Masons, so it has always been an area of interest). The book, however, was so convoluted that we had to give up. As Poe long ago realized, the best place to hide something is in plain sight. As I pulled up to a stoplight recently, I noticed the car in front of me had the masonic emblem hidden as a decal on its brake lights. Was I on the road to enlightenment?

Sabbateans, it seems, can be traced back to a seventeenth-century rabbi called Sabbatai Zevi, who lived under Muslim rule. Apparently he converted to Islam, but was also recognized as a messiah (there have been more than a few) and his followers went underground. We are told, at least by Wikipedia (where the article suffers from lack of verification) that several groups resemble, or may have derived from, the Sabbateans. It should come as no surprise that a secretive religion would be difficult to verify. That’s the whole point. Most religions claim that a certain small cross-section of believers has some esoteric knowledge that the rest of us lack. It would be difficult to claim any kind of authority if they didn’t.

Conspiracy theories are endlessly fascinating. Whether it is the Bilderberg Group or the Rosicrucians, we’re just sure somebody’s holding out on secret knowledge and power that keeps the rest of us in the dark. Mainstream religions, which tend to train their clergy in mysterious seminaries with arcane knowledge, have always been critical of secret societies. Catholics claimed Masons to be heretical, while Protestants claimed them to be too Catholic. Every religion, however, has its secrets. Umberto Eco and Dan Brown (it hurts just to use those names together in the same sentence) both recognized the appeal of the conspiracy theory in popular literature. The Illuminati, I’m told, are largely taken as a joke on the Internet. In my quieter moments I tent my fingers and consider: that’s just the way they’d want it to be, isn’t it?

Who is this man?

Who is this man?

Beyond Redemption?

NonbelieverNation The Roman emperor Gaius, it is said, was insane. He perpetrated such antics as declaring war on the North Sea, making his horse a senator, and appearing in public dressed as various gods. Better known as Caligula, Gaius is often presented as evidence of the decadence that would eventually lead to the fall of the Roman Empire. Civilization, we’re told, has progressed enormously since then. We put people on the moon, and we carry in our pockets technology that appears, to mere mortals, as if it’s magic. We have elected an African-American to the White House and men have magnanimously granted females the right to vote. Oh how far we’ve come! And yet, in the midst of our self-congratulation, we have not one, but a plethora of high-ranking politicians in all three branches of the government who believe the world is only 6000 years old. They firmly believe Jesus will return on a white horse (presumably to be made a senator) any day now. And there will be a massive battle of good (us, or at least some of us) versus evil (those not evangelical in orientation) that will lead to the end of the world. And they are easily elected. Is that a knowing smile I see on Gaius’ face?

David Niose, president of the Secular Coalition for America, has written an important book entitled Nonbeliever Nation: The Rise of Secular Americans. Before you run for your shotguns, be assured that Niose is—like most secularists—not trying to do away with religion. Secularity is all about the founding principles of this country: freedom of conscience, the right to believe what we will. Or won’t. Up until the 1950’s the secular aspect of this country was taken more or less for granted. Tellingly, Niose opens his book by looking at the presidential elections of 1912 in which not one of the four candidates had a problem with evolution and even the most religious of them was very much a moderate. A century later and we have rampant Fundamentalists well funded and ready to push other nations toward initiating Armageddon. “Well, they started it!” And still, secular Americans are consistently portrayed as insidious snakes in the garden, trying to destroy everything.

It is difficult to read Nonbeliever Nation and not feel embarrassed as we see the promise of an advanced nation winding back its clock to the point that the educated are presented as ignorant at best—or more likely, evil. Where churches and corporations are increasingly difficult to tell apart, and where basic civil liberties for women and gays are still considered somewhat suspect, as if they hadn’t cleared the desk of the Big Man upstairs. Yes, he does have a beard and a son. And yet, despite the message of that putative son—known as a pacifist with radical ideas about social equality—the faithful bar the way for the oppressed while building the most massive arsenal in the world’s history. Rome, they say, was not built in a day. It didn’t even fall until 476, but already in the first century, large cracks had begun to appear. The difference is that America is far more religious. Does that give us any better chances, or worse? Read David Niose and decide. And, since global warming is real, the North Sea will eventually win in the end.

True Literalism

Biblical literalists make strong claims for selectively obeying the Bible. It isn’t so hard to do in the short term, as numerous books on people “living biblically” have shown. You can get by for a year without trimming your beard or going out on a Saturday. You can even survive without eating pigs. Still, the moral codes that political literalists cite tend to have their own empowerment in mind: prevent women, gays, or those of other races from getting ahead. Stone adulterers and sassy kids. The Bible will set us straight! The finer points of the law, however, have likely never been observed. Even biblical scholars will confess that Leviticus can be a tough go. It sometimes helps to make diagrams as you read along to try to follow the intricate rules. Still, since Leviticus is the only place to find anti-homosexual rhetoric in the Hebrew Bible, we’d better go on reading it, right? It is worth it to feel better about ourselves. Superiority rules!

I was thinking about Leviticus 25 recently, the chapter about the sabbaths of the land. The concept may have sound environmental principles encoded in it: after working the land for six years, you leave it fallow on the seventh and live off of what you’ve stored up during the presumably bumper-crop years. The same principle lies behind rotating crops—the land needs a rest. There’s no evidence, however, that this was ever really put into practice. It is notoriously difficult to feed everyone in a subsistence economy, and deliberately not growing food for a year will almost certainly lead to disaster. Read a little further though. Every fiftieth year, Leviticus 25 mandates, that which you have bought from your neighbor should be returned. “Ye shall not therefore oppress one another” is one of the more easily overlooked rules in the Good Book. Any land sold is only on loan for, at most, forty-nine years. I’m still waiting for the book entitled My Fifty Years of Living Biblically.

The biblical term for this collective lack of selfishness is called Jubilee Year. Ancient Israel was, at least on vellum, an egalitarian society. Each person had promised land allotted to them. Economic hardship (such as sending a child to college) might necessitate selling all you have. Fear not—hopefully before you die—what you sold will be retuned to you and the system will even itself out again. It is a profoundly beautiful idea. It has, of course, never been taken seriously. So as we see the literalists massing as candidates begin gearing up for another cycle of elections, I think it is only fair to ask to see their mortgage papers. A visit to the county records bureau might be in order. I think maybe somebody has been holding out on land I’m biblically owed in upstate New York. Just don’t tell any Native Americans about this, for it seems maybe they have the most of all to benefit from taking the Bible literally.

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A Run-By Fruiting

Photo credit: Eva Rinaldi, Wikimedia Common

Photo credit: Eva Rinaldi, Wikimedia Common

I’ve never been enticed by the cult of celebrity. Becoming famous is frequently a matter of being in the right place at the right time to get noticed. Interviews with stars inevitably come across as lacking in substance. Some of the funniest people I’ve known have worked in camera shops, administrative offices, and IT departments. Still, the suicide of Robin Williams a week ago has impacted a wide swath of the nation. We hate to see a funny man die. It is such a truism as to be trite that those who are clowns often host inner demons. Laughter, Reader’s Digest proclaims monthly, is the best medicine. Who better to heal than those who know what it’s like to have been wounded? Yet we want the funny to keep on making us laugh until we move on to the next diversion.

For this past week I’ve been pondering how one man’s tragic death has jolted a nation into a reflective moment of silence. I can’t say I was Robin Williams’ biggest fan, but I’d seen a number of his movies, and I was devoted to Mork and Mindy growing up (aliens have a way of getting prime-time exposure that has never really been explained). I thought he was good at what he did. He was famous and had money, but it wasn’t enough to buy off the demons. Suicides hit me hard since I’ve known a few and have struggled with depression myself. There are times, truth be told, when no direction is up. It is at those times, however, that others tend to ignore you, lest you bring them down. People like to laugh.

There is something profoundly religious about the idea of a wounded healer. Anthropologists as well as theologians have noticed it. They need have only looked as far as the Bible to find examples. Yet the Christian tradition treats suicide as a great sin against God and the plan is that we all live to die either at the hands of nature or of someone else, so the guilt doesn’t cling to us. Death always leads to a remorse that entails such guilt. And yet it is inevitable. As a nation we are used to seeing comedians overdose or live reckless lives that end tragically. Deliberate action, however, feels the most horrendous of all. We’ll ask “why?” for a while, and we’ll make tributes and tearful speeches. And meanwhile some of the funniest people we can claim will be sweeping our floors or asking “would you like fries with that?”

Clockwork Heavens

DecodingTheHeavensIn a museum in Athens sits a device chock-full of gears and cogs and dials. Indeed, it looks quite a bit like the movement of a pre-digital clock. This particular object, known as the Antikythera Device, is what would sometimes be labeled an “out of place artifact” were its provenance not so well attested. History doesn’t always play fair. Jo Marchant’s Decoding the Heavens: A 2,000 Year Old Computer—And the Century-Long Search to Discover Its Secrets tells the fascinating story. Discovered by sponge-divers blown off course by a storm in 1900, a sunken ship at Antikythera became the first ever site of a ship-wreck excavation attempt. Even today underwater archaeology presents numerous challenges, but in the turn of the previous century, even land-based archaeology was a kind of glorified treasure hunt rather than an attempt to reconstruct ancient history. As the divers visited and revisited the site into 1901, they discovered ancient Greek statues that are among the best preserved from the ancient world. They also found the corroded box of gears that nobody really noticed for several months.

Marchant carefully unravels the slow process of discovery, acclaim, and forgetfulness that accompanied learning about this highly advanced computer. As with many other important finds, World Wars I and II led to distractions that made history somewhat less appealing than killing millions and then trying to recover from the damage. (The Ugaritic tablets, as I’ve often suggested, suffered a similar forgetfulness for being found at the wrong time.) As scholars, usually only one or two in a decade, began to notice the Antikythera mechanism, it became very much an object out of time. A sophisticated computer for calculating the movement of the sun, moon, and planets, the device could also show the phases of the moon, predict eclipses, and keep track of the Saros, Metonic, Exeligmos, and Callippic Cycles (18, 19, 54, and 76 years in duration, respectively). These cycles accounted for the adjustments needed by leap years and other fixes in the modern calendar. I can’t even keep track of Daylight Savings Time.

Adding to the mystery and drama, the Antikythera Device dates from the first century BCE, a time confirmed by radiocarbon dating and the presence of coins found on the ship. It is unknown who made it, but the influence of Archimedes is implicated. A similar device would not be known for another 1500 years with the beginnings of the Early Modern Period. The Roman Empire, which held power in the Mediterranean world at the time, was on its way toward the legendary decadence that would lead to its inevitable fall. It seems that a culture based on military might had little use for academic devices that were literally centuries ahead of their time. History does not repeat itself precisely, but broad strokes may often reveal more than passing similarities. And for those who want to discover a computer than shouldn’t have been, Marchant’s book is an excellent introduction to how the wisdom of the ancients still keeps us guessing.

Historic Crossing

If Washington crossed the Delaware, I figured, so could I. Of course, I have a car and I was going from New Jersey to Pennsylvania, but history doesn’t always repeat itself precisely. In New Jersey, the landing side of the crossing, a modest park marks the spot, along with plenty of space for outdoor activities. Pennsylvania, meanwhile, has a tripartite park which includes sculptures, an historical village, and a tower. The tower was built from 1929 through 1931 in commemoration of the momentous crossing. My mother visited the site as a teenager, some few years after it opened. On a mission to recapture part of her childhood, I made a visit to see a bit of history, and also to experience the great views. As far as towers go, this one isn’t the tallest, but in Bucks County, it is among the highest points and you can see for many miles on a clear day. On the top of the tower I overheard a man explaining to his family that Washington built the tower in the 1700s and that it was used in the Revolutionary War. He lamented that it would be easy to be trapped on top of the tower, and urged his kids to imagine what it would have been like.

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My thoughts went to the Bible. We’ve come to know through archaeology and comparative sources that many of the events portrayed as history are about as accurate as having Bowman’s Tower built by a long-deceased George Washington. And yet we continue to teach children that stories for which no evidence exists are history. We don’t always have a good grasp on how to tell the difference. In the United States George Washington is nearly divine in reputation. His travels are attested on an almost omnipresent scale; even my childhood home of Franklin, a tiny burg near the Ohio border in Pennsylvania, saw visits from the general. I grew up knowing little of the history of the man who would become the first president. I did know, however, that he’d crossed the Delaware.

History is not so easy as it seems. What “actually happened” on the ground may not offer much meaning to those who seek it. Only when the events become story—sometimes sacred story—do we start to get a sense of why the Bible has such a grip on a large swath of the human race. It is story with no apology. Its historicity is far beyond recoverability: who saw the creation of the world? Even the events in the human timescale were written, for the most part, centuries after the occurrence, with all the liabilities that entails. Built by members of the Washington Crossing Park Commission, the park I’m visiting intends to demonstrate the importance of a singular event that led to the freedom of an entire nation. Indeed, the crossing of the water to free a nation has a distinctly biblical feel to it. And even if that first exodus never happened, we tell our children it did, and we have no less a figure than George Washington building a tower to prove it.