Monthly Archives: April 2015

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.

Graceland

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.

339px-Epicteti_Enchiridion_Latinis_versibus_adumbratum_(Oxford_1715)_frontispiece

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.

Last Man

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.

The-Omega-Man-Poster

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.