Mind the Gap

HistoryOfMindThere’s something on my mind. I guess that’s the normal state of a conscious being. William H. Calvin’s A Brief History of the Mind might clarify that a bit. Although I have trouble accepting Calvin’s belief that mind is the same as brain, he does allow, in this wonderful little book, for a somewhat more expansive view. Subtitled From Apes to Intellect and Beyond, the story is more than just a survey of archaeological finds and their physiological counterparts. This is a story. It is a story of how we developed minds. Calvin approaches the topic with the realization that others will have different stories, and that future discoveries (some of which may have already been made in the decade since the book was written) may change it a bit. The book ranges from the quasi-technical (at least from the perspective of sitting on a bus) to the amusing, but always keeping in sight of the fact that this is of human interest.

Particularly compelling is Calvin’s consideration that we may have, at least from our modern perspective, gotten ahead of ourselves a time or two. In discussing the migration of hominids from Africa, he makes the brilliant point that perhaps we weren’t quite ready for that adjustment at that time. We seem to have perhaps driven other hominids to extinction. Our technology might have been outracing our conceptual knowledge of how to handle it. When he returns to this theme later in the story, the results are even a little frightening. We do sometimes get to the point where we can do things that we shouldn’t do. Before our minds have realized the full implications. Atomic bombs, anyone?

Unlike many scientists who believe in materialism, Calvin does not ridicule religion. He notes that it can be taken too literally, but does not suggest we are fools for believing. In fact, he discusses a couple of sects that have turned dangerous over time. He shows how they acted logically, following their thought process in an orderly, if clearly wrong, direction. Some would use this as a cudgel to bash religion in general. Instead, Calvin seems to suggest that we might learn from all of this. Minds, while impressive, are not perfect. Logic can have its flaws. We can, despite the tragedy, learn valuable things about how the mind works. This is an open-ended story; the future of mind is being constantly disclosed. If there is a future for us, we can perhaps prepare a bit better by understanding what’s on our minds.

Receive History

Sacred texts, without readers, are mere artifacts. While so evident as to be trite, this truth lies behind the area of biblical studies called reception history. Perhaps from the earliest days that some books were considered holy, those who studied them wondered primarily what the original author meant. That was, after all, why the texts were preserved as special—they possessed a quality that other writings lacked. Over the centuries this perspective gained nuance and sophistication. (Despite what some secularists say, the study of the Bible can be quite scientific. Some of it is so technical that even specialists have a difficult time following it.) Until last century, however, one aspect remained unchallenged. The goal was to reach what the original author meant. The enterprise of exegesis is geared toward that end. Strip away the reader to get to the writer.

thumb_IMG_2069_1024Meanwhile sacred texts, such as the Bible, continue to develop their own lives in culture. While today’s facile use of the Bible in politics may seem to be something new, the use of Scripture in government is as old as this nation. It easily goes back to European explorations of text, and perhaps even to Asian exegesis before then. Even though the founders of the United States were unquestionably Deists, for the most part, they also were biblically literate. Even the Enlightenment recognized that the Bible held a privileged place in western civilization. Perhaps it was not the only sacred text, but it was a sacred text to many thousands, or millions, or people. Such a pedigree is wasted only with great loss to all. Enter reception history.

In the days of ecclesiastical hegemony, the church, however defined, had the right to interpret Scripture. With the growth of literacy and education the possibility of understanding the Bible spread to any who could read, or had ears to hear. We have only to glance around to see the ramifications of that today. While students may not know who Moses was in the Bible, they can tell you Christian Bale played him in a recent blockbuster. They may not know that Noah was 600 years old when the flood came, but they can tell you he was a troubled, if not somewhat psychotic, devotee of God. At least in popular culture. And that is merely the thinnest veneer of the surface. The idea of sacred texts remains embedded in our worldview. It would seem that if we want to understand ourselves, reception history will unearth vital clues.

Post Script to Art

At work Christian Century is a magazine that sometimes lands on my desk. I suspect the book reviews are the main reason for this, but I like to skim the headlines to see what the more progressive, popular periodical has to say about the world. I always glimpse the news in brief section, and quite often the quotes of the week are poignant. This past week I read one from Paul Simon, who was speaking at Princeton University. The quote ran, “We are living in an anti-art age. The world is now a brutal place and obsessed with speed and wealth.” I found my head nodding as I read that sentiment. While I was a little too young to be aware of Paul Simon’s considerable contribution to popular music while it was happening (although I was old enough to appreciate Graceland when it came out), I nevertheless listened to Simon and Garfunkel during college and beyond, amazed at the depth and accuracy of Simon’s poetry. Here was a true artist.

What a difference half a century can make. I find myself not recognizing the world that I took for an assured thing as a child. Drawing back to get some perspective—which is something I think Paul Simon would appreciate—I think about the world without technology. Other species, for example. The behavior of, say, deer is the same today as it was when Europeans first invaded these shores. While deer still wander out onto roads in their natural quest for food, we race at them in heavy machines that leave them dead and twisted grotesquely at the roadside. Deer may not have the mental capacity to think, “hey, there’s fewer predators than there used to be,” but they are frequently brought into contact with a technology that is so nineteenth century, and the result is fatal. Where has the artistry gone? The deer remain the same.

I read a lot of older stuff. When I see the literature that was clearly published for its beauty of language and artistry, it brings a tear to my eye. We don’t publish work like that any more, unless it can make money. Everything has become a calculated capital venture. If you can’t make money off it, it’s not worth doing. When I was stressing out in college over exams, I would sometimes put on my old Simon and Garfunkel records and listen to the deep and complex lyrics to “Mrs. Robinson,” or “Bridge over Troubled Waters,” or “The Sound of Silence.” Despite the angst, this was a world that had a place for beauty for its own sake. It’s not just the music that’s changed since then, because I knew that I was listening to the words of a prophet. And prophets only appear when there’s trouble ahead.

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Plainly Ghosts

GhostsSometimes I’ll buy a book and secret it aside to read later as a kind of reward for making it through some heavier material. Research monographs don’t always do the job for which they are required in the commuter’s life—keeping me awake on a long and tiresome bus ride. I look forward to the book that has more appeal, and I don’t want to rush through it right away. I picked up Roger Clarke’s Ghosts, A Natural History: 500 Years of Searching for the Truth in Princeton’s wonderful Labyrinth just after Christmas (the traditional time, I learned, for telling ghost stories). Now that spring is more or less firmly in place, and I’ve gotten through some erudite studies that I might use for an academic paper or two, I picked it up to pass the time on my weary ride. As regular readers will know, ghosts have long been a preoccupation of mine, but one on which I’ve always been ambivalent. Clarke doesn’t set out to prove anything here. His book is more experiential than agenda-driven. He begins with the simple observation that people do see ghosts.

Lamenting that he himself has never seen one, Clarke sets out upon a partially autobiographical explanation of where this fascination began. Being from the United Kingdom—often cited as the most haunted country in the world—he goes through some of the more famous accounts with a sharp eye. Crying shenanigans when they’re obviously there, he questions how one can claim that any one country is more haunted than another. More importantly, he notes how seeing ghosts is a marker of class. Historically, the rise of the middle class led to the death of the ghosts. The rich and the poor see ghosts more often. Those in the middle associate such sightings with poor education, while those who are most educated and refined take ghosts for granted. It is only with the rise of reality television, the true opiate of the middle class, that ghost belief has become acceptable in the broad center.

Clarke also frames his work against the religious background that Catholics, with their belief in purgatory, had room for ghosts in their theology. Protestants tended to see anything reported as a ghost as a demon, since the soul either went to heaven or hell after death, meaning that there’s no ghost left to wander around. While doubtlessly skeptics exist, I have always been intrigued that even hard-nosed scientific views of the paranormal world tend to go a bit softer on ghosts than they do on cryptids and aliens. I suspect that’s because ghost reports have been around as long as written records and, presumably, long before. People have always seen ghosts, and in such large numbers that it is difficult to simply call them names and say they’re foolish. Yes, we may be a credulous lot, but we can still find books like Ghosts at a reputable bookstore. And we can tuck them away as guilty pleasures to take the chill off an otherwise very dull ride.

Bus Fare

The two things most likely to kill you on the streets of Midtown Manhattan are taxi cabs and city buses. Crossing the Fifth Avenue can be a dangerous game of chicken, even if the light’s in your favor. Over the past few weeks I’ve been noticing a lot of religious-themed advertising on the buses of this secular haven. A while back it was Killing Jesus—I suspect this must’ve been around Easter time. The movie based on the bestseller appeared with images of the savior tattooed over aluminum and glass. This week I noticed buses advertising A.D. “The Bible continues,” they claim. Don’t take that as career advice, however. With these thoughts in my head, it seems quite a coincidence that my wife would forward me a Huffington Post story entitled, “Anti-Muslim ‘Killing Jews Is Worship’ Ads Set To Go Up On NYC Buses, Subways.” New York City is a Judeo-Christian sort of town, I guess.

Of course, the text is deeper than that. I’d never heard of the American Freedom Defense Initiative (AFDI) before. According to Huff, it’s classified as a hate group directed at Muslims, and, in an ironic twist, designated public forums are not permitted to block adds. I’m just a layman, but I hope an educated one. Still, when I see public space as a battlefield for religious triumphalism, I wonder why the paid add space (what is the side of a bus, if not wasted advertising space?) is not restricted by any rules. I do not condone any kind of hate crime, and that should, I believe, include copy that intends to replicate hate. If human history has taught us nothing else, we’d be fools not to see that hate begets hate, and never love. The way out of a hateful situation is never to instill further hatred.

I spend a good deal of every week inside a bus. Sometimes as I try to read by the light of day, which has finally reappeared during my commute, the illumination is blocked by advertisements plastered over the windows of my expensive, public chariot. I sometimes peer out through the dots, unable to read what I’m advertising, and wonder what those on the other side see. Who am I shilling for? Perhaps this is a question the AFDI should put to itself—what if they were the ones on this bus. How will the person on the street look at them? With overflowing love or with reciprocal hate? The bus I ride is not really a choice I make. I like to think, however, that the destination for which we all hope would be for a more loving world.

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Saving Face

Although it has been commented upon in Rate My Professor, my beard is not intended to be impressive. In fact, it’s not really. Since I was quite young I dreamed of being a bearded man. I don’t know why. My father and my step-father were clean-shaven. The pictures of Jesus with which I grew up, however, seemed to suggest that a kindly man must be a bearded one. Nature deemed, however, that my facial hair would be less impressive than that of many boys I knew in high school who were already contending with five o’clock shadow. I never liked shaving. To me, nature dictated that men should be bearded, and who was I to combat nature? Except for a brief stint when I had to make a living in retail, I’ve worn a beard since I’ve been able to do so. I don’t fuss with it, trying to make it something it’s not. It is simply who I am.

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So when my wife sent me an infographic from the Washington Post about religious beards, my curiosity was piqued. It actually makes me a little self-conscious, I have to admit. I vehemently dislike anyone commenting on my appearance. There’s also something vaguely sexual about facial hair, coming as it does with the onset of puberty (a few years later in my case). Looking at the ways various religious groups condone facial sculpting, I couldn’t help but think that traditionally religions have said, to borrow a phrase from Frozen, “let it go.” Or let it grow. God and nature are one here. Genetics may determine what kind of beard may grow, but it takes religions to say it is God’s plan. For me, standing before a mirror before dawn, scraping my face with a very sharp piece of metal while I’m still yawning hardly seems civilized. Wash and go seems much more natural to me.

In the biblical world, the beard was a symbol of experience. Lifespans in those days were precarious. Guys surviving to my level of whiteness were revered. Today we are considered scruffy and lazy and unwilling to play by the rules society has set. I suppose it’s no accident that I was always a fan of John the Baptist with his unkempt appearance. Like Elijah before him he was a man of the wilderness. As nature made him. I last shaved in 1988. Were I to do so again, I fear what I might find underneath. Harrell Beck, before he died, once said to me, “you’ll never shave it off.” Although once I did, he has proved himself among the prophets. Just don’t say anything about it to me since, like religion, to me it is a very private thing.

I’m No Legend

First there was The Last Man on Earth with that rare, disappointing performance by Vincent Price. Then there was The Omega Man, putting Charlton Heston into the role that fit him better than Moses. Finally, returning to the original title, I Am Legend featured Will Smith as Robert Neville. Having watched all three movies, I knew I should have read Richard Matheson’s short novel first. After all, it was a vampire story, and who doesn’t feel utterly alone once in a while? I finally decided to make an honest man of myself. It occurred to me as I started to read that I didn’t know how this story would end. All I had ever seen were cinematic treatments—and who writes anything serious about genre fiction? Still, I needed to know.

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Matheson was one of the writers who had caught Rod Serling’s attention on the Twilight Zone. Having read some of his short stories I could see why. Not knowing the ending, some of them can actually be scary. I Am Legend isn’t exactly frightening. It is, however, thought-provoking and sad. Matheson, a New Jersey native, wasn’t among the most literary of writers. Nevertheless, he conveys some deeply disturbing images of humanity in this particular novel. After all (spoiler alert!) Robert Neville is the evil one. He has been killing vampires with a cold calculation, no matter whether they are living or undead (good or bad). Who has a right to kill whom depends on your point of view.

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In I Am Legend, Matheson makes it clear that Neville, the last man alive, is an atheist. The problem, as it usually is, is theodicy. How could a god allow such a massive tragedy to strike not only himself, but the entire world? After the vampire virus had spread, Neville finds himself dragged into an evangelistic meeting by terrified survivors who had turned to religion to make sense of their tragedy. Neville escapes as quickly as he can. The movie versions tend to ignore this poignant aspect of the narrative. After all, the audience watching must sympathize with Neville or the whole draw of the movie is off. In a nation where atheists are trusted about as much as vampires, it seems that Matheson left us a parable as well as a legend.

The Lure of Lore

SleepyHollowOne of my doctoral advisers, Nick Wyatt, has become a friend over the years. I’m sure he would agree that he is often called a maverick, but in the best possible way. He is one of the brightest people I’ve ever known. When it was time for his Festschrift to appear, I had been unceremoniously tipped out of academia and left to my own devices. Being his first doctoral student, I had to contribute a piece, and so I settled on one I had written about an Edinburgh ghost story that seems to have roots in ancient Sumer.  Nick is the kind of scholar who can appreciate such ventures. This paper came to mind while reading Legends and Lore of Sleepy Hollow and the Hudson Valley by Jonathan Kruk.  Kruk labels himself a storyteller, and that was a venerable role in ancient times.  In fact it was a priestly one.  Kruk draws out the many tales of headless horsemen and other spirits mentioned in Washington Irving’s “Legend of Sleepy Hollow.” Nothing is proven here, but that’s not the point.

Headless ghosts were a staple of nineteenth-century lore not only in the Hudson Valley, but also in Scotland and Germany, as well as in many other locations.  How a spirit became decapitated is generally part of the draw to such ghoulish stories, and Kruk convincingly points to the tradition of the Wild Hunt as an element in Ichabod Crane’s famous ride.  The point is that stories often contain a truth that facts can’t match.  Case in point: the legend of Sleepy Hollow is alive and well. There have been periods, and will likely be more periods, when interest wanes, but we keep coming back to the story because it teaches us something about ourselves.  Empiricism is all fine and good until you find yourself facing a headless phantom on a nighttime highway.  Experience all of a sudden takes the wheel.

What does this have to do with Professor Wyatt?  My Festschrift article was reviewed, at a much earlier stage, by the journal Folklore.  I received a very sniffy rejection letter, citing, among other scholarly infractions, that I had referred to a popular publication (say it isn’t so!) as a source of the Edinburgh ghost story text. Where else was I to find it?  What scholar would bother to replicate an obviously—let’s just say it—uneducated tale?  Isn’t it beneath scholarly dignity? The stories we tell, I’ve always believed, make us who we are. It may be that materialists will have the last laugh.  When they are carted to the graveyard, however, I can guarantee that there will those among the common mourners who will be able to make a believable tale that their lives meant something after all.

Worth Saving

Once we speed past Easter/Passover, holidays start to fall by the wayside as we try to get back to the serious business of either finishing up school for the year or, in a more pedestrian view, just plain business. Holidays interrupt the flow. Break the continuity. Stop and start. That’s why those of us on the working end of the spectrum appreciate them so much. Nevertheless, what should be the most important sacred day of them all is just another work day. Today is Earth Day. Recognized by no major religion (what religion wants to shake the status quo of business that brings in lucre?), Earth Day is a chance to pause and think about the undermining that we dole out to our long-suffering planet. We are nearing the point, many scientists warn, where climate change will become unreversible. We’ve had years, indeed, decades of lead time, during which the wealthiest nation in the world has been digging the grave the fastest. Even the popular media has been sending its subtle hints: anybody wonder why flood stories predominate in this climate? Think about it.

Reading books about environmental degradation is a depressing exercise. The size of the task is overwhelming and we’ve lost the ability even to reach our own government officials who are nevertheless impotent before big business. We can try to plant a tree, pick up trash, or recycle our plastics, but the destruction is taking place on an industrial scale. Ironically, as we go about making our own planet uninhabitable, scientists are beginning to believe that there is life on other planets. Some of us have suspected that all along. And if they come here that must mean we have something worth preserving. My guess is that it is nothing big business can provide. We can be so much more than consumers.

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Businesses are like all of the selfish motives we’ve had to suppress congealed into an anonymous venture in which none have the ultimate responsibility. Driving at night with the headlights off. I have worked for companies that have wanted to be seen as environmentally friendly. None of them, however, have taken the step of making Earth Day a recognized holiday. A moment of silence. A requiem for a dying planet. The draw of profit is just too strong. The old adage is that if a business is not growing it’s not healthy. Instead of ensuring that the only planet we can reach will be able to sustain us for a few more years, we want to go out with our pockets full. And where, I wonder, to we plan to spend all that money?

Wireless

Routine.  That’s how many of us make it through the day.  If it weren’t for routine, I’m sure I couldn’t force myself out of bed each day at 3:30 without an alarm.  What makes me stand on a street corner, often in the dark with wind chafing my neck or rain soaking my feet, waiting for a bus?  Routine.  Sitting before a computer all day in a windowless cubicle?  Routine.  One of the little joys in this regimented life is this blog where I can discuss academic topics or monsters, books or movies, things that are anything but routine.  But the blog is a creature of the internet.  Now that our lives revolve around it, what do we do when the internet is gone?  Interpocalypse.

Last night I arrived home to find our internet service had ended.  Knowing that my service provider is one bill I always pay, I had to call to find out what had gone wrong.  My panic-struck mind kept coming back to the same thing: how will I post on my blog tomorrow?  It may seem a small thing, a first-world problem, but it has become a matter of identity for me.  I’ve had to go overseas three times over the past four years for my jobs.  I’ve had to travel all around the United States to universities that would never consider hiring me.  Even with all this disruptive travel I’ve managed to post on my blog every day.  Holidays and weekends are no exceptions since my mind doesn’t take days off.  One of the first things I did when the power came back on after Hurriane Sandy, was post on my blog.  Now, I was cut off at the very ground of being.  Paul Tillich would’ve dissolved into tears.  Martin Luther would’ve thrown an ink pot.  My service provider walked me through dark corners of my basement and asked technical questions about blinking lights.  “We’ll have to send someone out tomorrow,” he grudgingly announced.

Tomorrow?  Is it possible before 3:30 a.m.?  I have a bus to catch—a routine to fulfill!  How am I to track my packages? Find out what the weather will be?  See just how few people read this drivel?  This little hiccup in daily existence has made me aware of just how vulnerable we are, at the mercy of the world of our internet avatars.  Pull the plug and it shuts off.  Twenty years ago, I barely checked email.  Today I don’t know how to pay bills without the internet.  I can’t fruitlessly show my wares—daily writing going on six years—I can’t impress all those people who don’t read my blog anyway.  Helpless, I stand before my router with its green Internet light firmly off.  I guess you’d call it mourning.  The death of a god is never an easy thing to behold.

Washington Irving

WashingtonIrvingLess known now than he was in his own lifetime, Washington Irving is an odd literary character. Many writers, at least of tomes we now have our children read in school, were not necessarily stars in their time. Some were obscure, their genius only becoming clear when they were safely dead. Washington Irving, however, rocketed to fame fairly early in his life and became what Brian Jay Jones refers to as an icon. He was one of the most famous men in America in his lifetime. Although he was never properly a novelist, he pretty much earned his career by writing. Today he is best remembered for “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” and “Rip Van Winkle,” two tales from his Sketchbook. Those of us who work in Gotham may not realize that Irving gave New York City its famous nickname. He also coined the sobriquet “knickerbocker” that still describes New Yorkers and their basketball franchise.

Washington Irving: The Definitive Biography of America’s First Bestselling Author, by Jones, is a revealing look at the author. Irving was raised in a strict, religious family with a father known to many simply as “the Deacon.” As Jones makes clear, Irving did not accept the harsh religion of his father, moving on to become skeptical of religion itself. Like his attempt to make writing a profession, in his religious outlook Irving was ahead of his time. Having been raised with a deity who had no respect for humanity, it is no wonder that a mere mortal might turn his back on the divine.

This was during the flowering of the age of reason. Like his younger contemporary Edgar Allan Poe, Irving knew early losses yet did not call out for a supernatural deliverance. Although evangelical sentiment has never been far from the surface in America, it would not bubble through to anything like modern proportions until Irving had been dead for about sixty years. Indeed, he died the same year that Darwin’s Origin of Species was published. Jones does not go into detail concerning Irving’s religious affiliations during life, but he had his funeral among the Episcopalians, and found his final resting place in the cemetery at Sleepy Hollow. Today his legacy in that regard lives on. With a difference, however—in the most recent movie and television versions, religion has been injected in an obvious way into what Irving wrote as a merely secular tale.

Pacific Rim

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Pacific Rim is a movie that once again brings monsters and religion together in the cinema. Since I’m generally late seeing movies, I won’t worry too much about spoilers here, but in case you’re even later than me here’s the gist of it: giant monsters from outer space (properly an interplanetary portal) are emerging from the Pacific Ocean to take over the earth. These radioactive, dinosaur-like aliens are called Kaiju. Although they can be taken down with conventional weapons, the most effective fighting tool is the Jaeger, a colossal robot piloted by two humans acting as the two hemispheres of the brain. These humans must “drift”—share their brains—in order to control these massive machines in unison. Lots of action and destruction, of course, ensue. We later find out that dinosaurs were an earlier invasion of these same aliens, but that our environmental degradation has made the atmosphere much better for them, and this time they’re back for good.

The resistance is led by a mysterious marshal named Stacker Pentecost. Pentecost, of course, is the festival celebrating either the giving of the Torah (Jewish) or the giving of the Holy Spirit (Christian). In either case, it is a holiday celebrating God’s plan for humanity. As Pentecost leads his beleaguered and shrinking army of jaegers against the Kaiju, scientists Geiszler and Gottlieb disagree about how to conquer the beasts. Gottlieb swears, “Numbers are as close as we get to the handwriting of God,” while advocating the predictive elements based on the statistics of the attacks. Science and religion have come to an uneasy truce here. As Geiszler seeks a Kaiju brain to drift, he observes some of the masses in Tokyo praying to the fallen beasts. A blackmarket dealer in Kaiju remains explains that they believe the Kaiju have been sent by God. Pentecost unwittingly concurs when he declares it is time to end the apocalypse.

Pacific Rim, like most Guillermo del Toro films, is a complex movie. There is also more than a sprinkling of H. P. Lovecraft here. The worship of the Kaiju keyed me in to the fact that these were the old gods, come to earth, under the sea, from space. As the first category 5 Kaiju swims past the camera, I couldn’t help but think of Cthulhu. Although Kaiju is Japanese for “monster,” it even sounds like his sacred name. We fear that which is larger, stronger, and unknown to us. When that fear becomes reverence we are on the brink of worship, and our monsters have become our deities.

States Right

Can you name your state insect? State bird? State dinosaur? The concept of united states, perhaps more obvious in Europe where languages differ, is a complex one. In the United States of America we’ve got our culture wars that generally divide along predictable state lines, but each state has a mix of progressives and conservatives, and caricatures may be funny but are hardly accurate. In this jambalaya of divergent ingredients, each state develops its own image in keeping with a couple centuries (for some) of tradition. We even have quarters that show our distinctive features on the reverse side! As one of those whose profession (whatever that is) has moved me across state borders periodically, I know that choice of domicile often depends on what it might offer by way of employment. Although one of my parents was born in New Jersey, I moved here not out of family loyalty but out of desperation to find work. Nearly every day I cross a state border to get to a job, but it feels pretty much the same to me.

Although I’ve lived in these states for nearly half a century (some of my years were spent abroad) I didn’t know that states had a choice of books. I don’t know if every state has a book. It saddened me to hear that New Jersey rejected “Born to Run” as state song since it was about trying to get out, but I don’t know if we have a state book. The Godfather, perhaps? Moby Dick? When NBC announced that Tennessee had its proposal to name the Bible as its state book shot down, I was a bit shocked. What is a state book? Tennessee, which (as a caricature) still takes pride in the Bryan side of the Scopes Monkey Trial, often leads the way, like Davy Crockett, against the untrusted, heathen other. The undiscovered country of modern thought. The Bible can be a comfortable book in that way.

The Bible justifies our prejudices. Written mostly by white men who believed they were specially chosen by God, well, is it any wonder that it bestows a sense of entitlement? Radical in its time, the Bible now stands for status quo ante, ante meaning before women and non-whites won the right to be considered equal. It is a kind of Paleolithic justice. A caveman ethic. What better way to demonstrate that your state, like Indiana, is a special haven of the Almighty? Only here can the truth be found. If you’re looking anywhere this side of 1611 you’ll miss it. We don’t need to know what came before. Protestants, now partnering with conservative Catholics when it fits the political agenda, have always recognized book over state. We the people and all that. I really do wonder, can you name your state dinosaur?

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The Friar’s Tale

Being a fan of Gothic fiction, I recently read an anonymous story from 1792 entitled, “The Friar’s Tale.” Those who linger among Gothic conventions know that the monastery is a common trope in the genre, often with debased clerics who use their authority to make their charges miserable. (Hmm. I wonder why I keep coming back to this kind of fiction?) Literary scholars tend to point to the late eighteenth century as the origin point of Gothic sensibilities which coincide with the Romantic movement. This then, is an early example of what people feared as industrialism and modernity encroached on a world once natural and full of mystery. The tale contains nothing to frighten a modern reader, but it does offer compelling commentary on the one organization that would seem most to benefit from retaining a pre-scientific worldview—the church.

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The story involves lovers separated by a cad who is after the lass’s money and who connives with the mother superior of a convent to lock the girl away from both her money and her lover. She comes to the realization that religion has ruined her prospects. The friar narrating the tale refers to religion as “that constant comfort of the good, and powerful weapon of the wicked.” Of course we had already experienced Reformation vitriol by this point in history, and rage against the use of religion as a means for personal gain had been thrown out for any who would care to utilize it. Clearly the author of “The Friar’s Tale” found it essential to the plot.

The truly interesting aspect of all this is how, in the intervening centuries, religion has continued to present this opportunity to the greedy and corrupt. Not all religion succumbs, of course, but when it becomes a hierarchy of any description there will follow those who find it a means of personal gain. The Prosperity Gospel movement comes immediately to mind. Those who putatively follow a man who is recorded as having said to give away all that you have in order to be his disciple have somehow missed the message and keep their treasure where moth and rust pose constant dangers. We think ourselves advanced since then, but the words of a fictional friar from centuries ago may still hold some wisdom for Gothic readers in the present.

Honest to Good

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The oldest standing building in Oxford is the Saxon era church tower of St. Michael at the North Gate. Dating from around 1040, it still stands, providing shade to the various buskers who are hoping to earn a bit of cash from their musical talents below. Although there are some modern buildings that harsh the historical sense of the city, you get the impression that the British revere their tradition. A recent article in The Guardian notes that the United Kingdom, seat of the Anglican Church worldwide, is among the least religious countries in the world. Depending on one’s perspective, that is either very good or very bad news. Several analyses exist as to why it is so. The country has gone from an empire on which the sun never set to a strong, yet diminished country. The two World Wars took an enormous toll on the island nation. The population tends to be well educated. They adore their royals, although the monarchy is largely for show. There is a disconnect between the fiction and the fact of life in such a place.

Britain may be leading the direction toward which secular societies will inevitably follow. Still, the survey cited in the article indicates that two-thirds of the world population sees itself as very religious. Surprising and flummoxing atheist advocacy groups everywhere, the young tend to be more religious than the old. Religious belief shows no sign of dying out. It was predicted decades ago that it would be dead by now. We were supposed to have a moon base in 1999, of course, and I’m still waiting to see if we manage the Sea Lab in the next five years. History has a way of disappointing us. Perhaps the silent skies through it all make it difficult to think there’s any direction coming from above. Left to our own devices, what do we see?

The UK hardly qualifies as a hedonistic state. There are social problems, to be sure, but it maintains a fairly safe, cultured atmosphere throughout. Tradition can be fiction and can still be meaningful. We don’t see angry atheists trying to bulldoze an ancient, if phallic, church tower. We don’t see angry crowds taking sledge hammers to the British Museum. The people on public transit are unfailingly polite, and I’ve not been treated like an object as I commonly am on my daily commute to Manhattan. Religion, it seems, is not the motive for civilized behavior. Nor does religion appear to detract from it. Has the holy grail been discovered after all?