Monthly Archives: December 2014

Book Ends

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It’s the end of another year of reading. Since Goodreads keeps track of my booklist, I see by their accounting I finished 95 books in 2014. The final day of the year seems an appropriate time to reflect on those that made the greatest impact on me. Starting at the beginning, Jacques Berlinerblau’s The Secular Bible immediately struck me as a book of high importance. In an era when religion is constantly considered irrelevant, Berlinerblau gives this trite brushoff the lie. Likewise Jeff Kripal and Sudhir Kakar’s Seriously Strange opens questions that must be addressed if we ever hope to find the truth. Frans de Waal’s The Bonobo and the Atheist and Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jethá’s Sex at Dawn both raise, in fundamental ways, the question of what it means to be human. Benjamin Ginsberg’s The Fall of the Faculty is essential to understanding the current crisis in higher education. Edward Ingebretsen’s Maps of Heaven, Maps of Hell is a roadmap through the genre of horror and its importance to society. The Miracle Detective by Randall Sullivan again highlights the question of what counts as reality. Nonbeliever Nation by David Niose shows the importance of separating politics from religion. Dean Radin’s The Conscious Universe brings science to bear on unanswered questions.

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Books specifically concerning religion also deserve some highlighting. Karen McCarthy Brown’s Moma Lola is crucial for comprehending, in a sympathetic way, voudun in a major city. Patricia Tull’s Inhabiting Eden makes a clarion call for religions to pay attention to the needs of the environment. Going Clear by Lawrence Wright is a good introduction to Scientology, while Jon Krakauer’s Under the Banner of Heaven serves a similar function in regards to Mormonism. Sam Harris’s Waking Up shows the need even atheists have for spirituality, complicating the sharp divide we are offered most of the time. Religion for Atheists, by Alain de Botton, also demonstrates the continuing usefulness of religion in a secular age. Vincent Bugliosi’s Divinity of Doubt calls both theists and atheists to task. Spirit Unleashed by Anne Benvenuti allows animals to have souls.

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Fiction always makes a part of each year’s reading as well. This year found me reading several ponderous tomes, but I very much enjoyed the lighter fare by Ransom Riggs, in Hollow City. James P. Blaylock’s Homunculus and K. W. Jeter’s Infernal Devices slaked my steampunk thirst temporarily. John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars and Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita were both difficult to read as a father, but important literature nevertheless. All of these books and more have individual posts dedicated to them on this blog. I always feel compelled to make clear that I find the books I read, whether highlighted here or not, one of the most rewarding aspects of my year. The long daily commute I normally endure would be torture without my books. Each year, each day I’m thankful for those who write them, and I look forward to an equally stimulating 2015 spent with my face buried in books.

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Pope for the Planet

According to The Guardian, Pope Francis is about to weigh in on the faux question of global warming. Faux because there really is no question—we know it is happening. Some high ranking Catholic politicians, no doubt, will not be amused. Apart from the fact that Francis has proven himself a true saint from the moment he got out of the gate—distancing himself from European pontiffs far more interested in church politics than what really matters—he has brought a sensibility borne of knowing how people really live and what is really important. Global warming is real, and the science behind the assertions is unquestioned. Interested parties (such as big oil) have hired their spin doctors to confuse the voting public, casting doubt on one of the few certainties we have. Politicians, whose funding comes from business interests, of course choose what to believe. How anyone can be so shortsighted, or selfish, as to saw off the very branch on which they stand I can’t comprehend. Past popes were too busy trying to keep ladies out of the exclusive gentlemen’s club to worry about those who feel the brunt of global warming.

Photo credit: Chief Yeoman Alphonso Braggs, US-Nav, Wikipedia Commons

Photo credit: Chief Yeoman Alphonso Braggs, US-Navy, Wikipedia Commons

Of course, it will catch up with all of us eventually. I’m not much of a swimmer, and I’m worried. Hurricane Sandy (a superstorm only in the sense that it hit the affluent) showed us just how near sea level Manhattan is. One gets the sense that the fastest growing cities being in Texas is no coincidence. As long as it doesn’t impact me personally, what’s the worry? Some entire island nations stand at threat, but perhaps they should’ve considered that before they moved to an island. Here’s the news flash—all land is island. We need each other, and the lowlands are as important as the highlands.

Organized religions of all kinds have been under fire for years. As science began to explain more and more, religions had to explain their own existence. Many turned internal—not in the spiritual sense, but in the aspect of clarifying the precise points of what makes them right (i.e., different from everyone else). In the United States the small town without five or six different steeples was the exception rather than the rule. Meanwhile, the emissions continued. And continue. At least we know we’re right. At last there is a pontiff who is a realist. A priest who understands that church is all about caring for people—those in the lowlands as well as those in the highlands. Of course, politicians know how to turn off the religion when it gets inconvenient. As long as I get mine, all is right with the world.

Bible Stories

JosephSay what you will about it, but the Bible has some great stories. Based on classical measures of what makes a good tale, the Bible ranks up there with Greek mythology and other ancient fiction that is meant to teach us about being human. Stories do teach, and literature is among the greatest of pedagogues. For the past two decades, Plays in the Park here in the New Brunswick area of New Jersey, has been putting on a post-Christmas, pre-New Year production of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat (indoors, due to the time of year). With the kinds of production values you expect of many off-Broadway venues, the show is exceptionally well done, and due to the local color, never too serious. And they play before a packed house. The reasonable prices, I’m sure, have something to do with it, but the fact is the story of Joseph is classic. Full of radical reversals, dreams that come true, and reconciliation, the Joseph novella is one of the great stories of humankind. Unlike many tales of Genesis, God is rather in the background here, perhaps overseeing the event, but not interfering in the human drama.

Although the musical, like most adaptations, takes liberties with the story, it remains fairly true to the Bible. Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice also had success with Jesus Christ Superstar, showing that, despite its detractors, the Bible still has some appeal. Negative sentiment directed toward the Bible largely derives from the wooden insistence of literalists that everything must be taken at face value. The Bible isn’t allowed its symbolic resonance. Perhaps we can get beyond a worldview where the sun literally goes around the earth, and pay attention to the very human dimensions of the stories it tells. Truth may be of scientific nature, but it may also be—indeed, it must be—human. The very concept of verity is human. We are the ones making up the story.

Scholars point out that even the colored coat of Joseph is based on a translation decision in the Septuagint (the Greek Hebrew Bible). For many people, however, who’ve never read biblical scholars, the truths of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat as just as legitimate. The rivalry between siblings is something many of us have experienced firsthand. While not many of us get promoted from prison to vice-president, we still dream that our lives could get better. Our dreams could come true. The upbeat score, of course, helps to reinforce the message—one might say it makes the message believable. That doesn’t mean that the tale is not true. There was no historical Joseph. The colored coat may be a translation error. The story is nevertheless true. Doubters should watch the show. Next year in the State Theater in New Brunswick just after Christmas would be an excellent opportunity to do so.

A Lot of Salem

SalemsLotVampires may seem out of place late in December, but they never really go out of season. That will be my excuse, anyway, for writing about Stephen King’s ‘Salem’s Lot, which I have just finished reading. Like many of King’s books, ‘Salem’s Lot takes a fair commitment of time to get through, and I actually started it back in November when it feels natural to have creepy thoughts. I suppose winter is more of a ghost season than a vampire season, but I have read what I have read. So, vampires.

The book is old enough now to have been a kind of prequel to the current vampire craze. Prior to picking up the tome, however, I didn’t know that it as a vampire story. I’m not sure it made as much of an impact as the shudder-inducing Twilight series (and that is a shudder of the most ironic kind). ‘Salem’s Lot is, after all, a fairly conventional vampire story—a Dracula reset in rural Maine. Instead of a Jonathan Harker we have a Ben Mears. Instead of Abraham van Helsing, we have Matt Burke. The plot is much the same, the end result is much the same. And vampires are banished by religious paraphernalia, as we’ve come to expect. For me the ultimate Maine vampire will always be Barnabas Collins (the kind fitting more the description of Jonathan Frith than Johnny Depp). Barlow, as a vampire, is entirely too self-serving. Barnabas is a deeply conflicted ghoul, a monster you can love. But not too much, because then we’d be left in the twilight. Mixing the vampire just right is tricky, and it seems that a soap opera was the place that got it right.

The movie Thirty Days of Night, based on the graphic novel, places vampires squarely in the middle of winter. In the thirty days of no sunshine in the Arctic Circle, the vampires of winter flood the town. Perhaps the idea relates to ‘Salem’s Lot for an entire town to come under siege. Or maybe not. When I read vampire stories I hope to come out transformed, I guess. Elizabeth Kostova’s The Historian may have spoiled me in that regard. As with most King novels, however, ‘Salem’s Lot is artfully written and at least for the characters a new story with a small twist on the old ending. In at least one regard, it is true to life—although they learn that the church banishes vampires, nobody joins and they only pray as a last resort.

Mother’s Night

It wouldn’t be Christmas, in the Christian tradition, without Mary. Still, apart from her later enhanced role in Roman Catholicism, Mary’s part beyond Christmas is minor in the church. She seldom features in biblical accounts of Jesus’ life. It is easy to forget the female role that was so much a part of winter solstice celebrations that coalesced into our modern twelve days (really only one, for work purposes). That’s why I was glad that a friend sent me a link to a site about Mödraniht, or Mother’s Night. Honestly, I had never heard of this holiday before. Given the Germanic penchant for dramatic festivities, it comes as no surprise that Yule involved a night celebrating the feminine aspects of the season. Apart from the occasional references to Mary, we tend to think of this as the time a male son of a male God came to save mankind. What of the women without whom none of this would have been possible?

As Carolyn Emerick notes on her page, we know little about this sacred day because Christianity managed to wipe out most of the pagan traditions of northern Europe. Some, of course, survived and worked their way into Christmas. Modern holidays, being primarily days off work rather than deeply felt celebration (for we live in a world with no need for religion), have gravitated toward what had once been the male preserve of earning a living. Watching movies of Dickensian times, it is clear the women continued to work—likely even more than usual—to bring off a holiday celebration. It was the male prerogative to be the recipient of largess.

Photo credit: "Urban" WikiMedia Commons

Photo credit: “Urban” WikiMedia Commons

My concern is that gender equality may sometimes be confused with gender stereotyping, or even with patronization. How is it possibly to build equality into a system put into place by generations of men? Is civilization truly civilizing when half of the race and only a very small portion of the planet benefits? The Christmas season, even now rapidly slipping away, is a time for considering equality. Every year modern non-believers and humanists ask for equality—a dream always held at arm’s length, since the holiday earns record profits as it is, and the financial year revolves around it like a Pole Star. It is the time of year when we see if we’ve turned a healthy profit. The rules in the system were set long ago. Even with Mary in the manger, she blends into the background while shepherds, wise men, and other interested males plan to make a holiday of it.

Are You Fey?

SeeingFairies‘Tis is the time of year that one might make inquiry into elves and the wee folk without being thought too strange. Santa has his cadre of mythic diminutive helpers and even the shepherds have their angels. The two, it seems, are not unrelated. Marjorie T. Johnson’s Seeing Fairies is, in many respects, a charming book. Compiled by the author during a lifetime of corresponding with people who claim to have seen fairies, elves, pixies, sprites, brownies, gnomes, and even angels, the stories—as parsimonious as any sermon—do create an aura of mystery. It is clear that Johnson believed (the book is posthumous) sincerely in the unseen world. As the preface makes clear, she was influenced by Theosophy, and the majority of the material dates from the 1950s and earlier. There is an almost childlike credulousness to the accounts, with Johnson not questioning psychic dreams or astral projection, placing them side-by-side with eyewitness accounts. This is a good example of what an editor might have done for the book.

Many people assume a doctorate in the humanities is a soft thing—pliable in a way that the hard sciences are not. The point of advanced study, however, is to ingrain habits of critical thinking. Nothing is taken at face value. For those of us who study folklore’s first cousin, religion, the task is often to set aside belief in the light of evidence. What can we know about the unknowable? Of course, psychologists and sociologists and anthropologists are now supposed to be better equipped to answer religious questions. Religion, after all, is something people think and do, and what can we really learn from studying it per se? We need an interpretative device—an hermeneutic filter (or pneumatic hammer)—to guide us toward the reality of the thing. And yet science itself is based on observation. Accounting for what our senses reveal about the world around us.

Some people, it is clear, find the world around them filled with wee people. Recently a major road construction was halted in Iceland out of fear of disturbing the elfin habitat. And Icelanders are some of the most literate people on the planet. Johnson’s accounts (some clearly hard to swallow) range across the earth, but center in the British Isles and Celtic lands. Perhaps the light is somewhat different there. Perhaps nearing the North Pole things really do change. What becomes clear from Seeing Fairies is that some highly credible and educated people see, from time to time, what they allow their eyes to see. Believing is, after all, seeing. Johnson ends her book with a chapter on angels, beings she clearly views in continuity with fairies. The difference is that the monotheistic religions allow for, and perhaps even demand, angels. When they become travel-sized, however, the only evidence is that of those with very keen eyesight.

Lords a’Leaping

As I’m writing a not insubstantial check for the rent, as I do every 25th, I am participating in a Christmas ritual. Having grown up with trees, presents, cookies, and a general warm glow about the holiday where you got things for free and didn’t have to do any work (home or otherwise), it is hard to believe that this kind of Christmas is a modern invention. Some years ago I wrote an unpublished book about the holidays. In researching it, I learned that Christmas was only gradually accepted as a day of celebration. For many it was too popish, and for others it was too frivolous. It was the day when tenants paid their rent to their landlords—and here is the tradition in which I’m participating—for landlords who don’t make money from their tenants are no lords at all. Indeed, this commercial transaction gives the lie to the common lament that Christmas has become commercial. It has been commercial for a very long time.

Some suggest that Charles Dickens—who wrote not just A Christmas Carol, but several stories about Christmas—is largely responsible for our sentimental image of the holiday. Individual traditions of the day go back to Medieval or earlier times, but the conglomeration of events that occur around December 25 come from many sources. Human beings, entrepreneurial by nature, recognize the economy of bringing various disruptions to the flow of money onto a single day. Indeed, the day after Christmas is often a day to rival the holiday itself, with people returning items and purchasing more. Soon enough Epiphany will ring in austerity. In watching for economic recovery, Christmas is a mere indicator of financial health. There need be nothing more to it.

A capital Christmas

A capital Christmas

As I was sitting in my windowless cubicle this week, receiving little email from academics (who are the main business partners for publishers) already out on a semester break, my thoughts turned toward the deeper meaning of the holiday. Business is business. Meetings with recurring set dates popped up for Christmas reminding me of events that, one senses, are only reluctantly cancelled. The true entrepreneur can’t wait to get back to the office. I’m busy looking deeper. The trappings may be modern, but the idea of celebrating in the darkest time of year is very ancient. We are hoping for something better. We are looking for a new start. Christian or not, anyone looking over the sprawl that we’ve made of everyday life can appreciate the symbol of a baby on the day the rent is due.