Permian Record

GorgonIt looked like an arm bone to me.  Then again, I have no formal training in either anatomy or geology.  The strata of Pennsylvania shale was littered with shell fossils from before the dinosaur era.  Had I found a rare early animal?  You see, I love fossils.  In fact, I was so disappointed the first time I walked into a Fossil store that I’ve never had the heart to go back.  Something about finding the remains of creatures millions of years old is inherently fascinating, and I was fortunate enough to grow up by a river that had plenty of fossils for the taking (a great pass-time for children of humble means).  When I saw Peter D. Ward’s Gorgon at a local book sale, I had to get it.  In addition to my love of fossils, I also have a special interest in Medusa, and the title grabbed two aspects of my attention at once.
 
The gorgon of the title is explained by the subtitle: The Monsters That Ruled the Planet Before Dinosaurs and How They Died in the Greatest Catastrophe in Earth’s History.  As Ward explains, many in the media express surprise that there was anything before the dinosaurs.  Perhaps I grew up with too much Genesis on the mind, but I knew about the Permian Extinction—the most deadly episode in Earth’s biological history.  Over 90 percent of life forms died out, including some of  the cooler species of mammal-like reptiles like the dimetrodon.  I have to confess, however, that I don’t recall ever hearing about gorgons before.  They are a South African species.  Well, they were, long before apartheid and other ridiculous human foibles.  Indeed, one of the charms of Ward’s account is that he doesn’t separate the human element from the paleontological.  His visits to South Africa often demonstrated how the current dominant species of the planet participates in its own extinction.  Valuing personal gain over social justice cannot have long-term payoffs.
 
This is a compelling story of people committed to finding answers in a barren land.  To an inveterate fossil-hunter like me, it was a dreamy sort of read.  I had my fossil “arm bone” assessed by a geologist.  It was actually a trilobite trail.  A trace fossil.  Sometimes things aren’t what they seem.  The answer of why of the Permian Extinction transpired turned out to be the most distressing aspect of the tale.  Climate change, Ward demonstrates, can easily lead to mass extinction through the very act of breathing.  Our evolution has favored the current atmospheric makeup of our planet.  Dinosaurs, who appeared after the Permian Extinction, had evolved lungs for processing air with less oxygen than we’re used to.  Greenhouse gases can shift subtle, invisible balances that are necessary for taking a breath.  And I could extrapolate to a future where technology will again come to the rescue, but only of those who can afford it.  And I wonder what far distant evolved intelligent species will make of a civilization where financial gain was considered the greater good than survival of an entire species?  Humanity itself will have become a fossil by then. But a well-dressed one.

Seeing the Trees

Into_the_Woods_film_posterI first learned of Stephen Sondheim’s musical Into the Woods while liking in the woods of Wisconsin. I was teaching a summer term course of mature students, one of whom used one of the songs to illustrate the point he was making during a presentation. Of course I don’t remember what the point was, but I did remember the movie. Then along came Shrek and fractured fairy tales were back in business. Enchanted brought Disney into the act, and a number of self-aware takeoffs from the brothers Grimm have followed. I’d seen the film of the stage show of Into the Woods before, but it had been a while. Over the weekend we decided to watch the new Disney offering of the story and as we did a couple of familiar, if obscure, ancient mythological motifs came to mind.

Cinderella, as we all know, was sorely abused by her evil step-mother and step-sisters. She seeks solace at her mother’s grave, in the woods, of course, in the movie version. While there, singing somewhere between a lament and a prayer, her mother appears to her in the tree that grew from a branch she’d planted there many years before. It’s a musical number, of course, but my mind couldn’t help going back to Asherah. Asherah is considered by many (without good reason, and I should know) to be the goddess of the trees. Yes, this was a mortal, a dead mortal at that, who spoke from the tree but the way she was presented in the movie was distinctly divine. Indeed, there is similar iconography from ancient Egypt. It was almost enough to make me go back on my own evidence that Asherah wasn’t a tree goddess.

The giant’s wife poses a real threat in this film. Jack’s beanstalk and the effects resembled those of Jack the Giant Slayer, a movie that I only vaguely remember as being one of many I watched with bleary eyes on a transatlantic flight a few years back. Nevertheless, Mrs. Giant is here stomping about the village when Jack and the baker decide to take her out at the tar pit, with the help of Little Red Riding Hood and Cinderella. The preferred weapon is a sling. As the giantess is pelted with stones, she grows annoyed until Jack, in the perfect image of David, strikes the giant between the eyes, slaying her. We all know the fairy tale version ends with the beanstalk chopped down. We’ve entered a new world, however. A world where Bible and fairy tale are harder to distinguish. And not only that, but even fairy tales no longer have the canonical status they once held.

The Ethics of Deception

In New Jersey you can’t pump your own gas. If you pull into a station with a line, you have to wait your turn. Once, on my way to an adjunct job, I pulled up to the next available pump. It was the only one free, and a car pulled up behind me to wait. Meanwhile the car at the pump in front of me pulled out. The attendant signaled the car behind me to the vacant pump and then walked back to tell me that my pump was out of order, I’d have to wait my turn. I left that gas station and have never gone back.  I think about that a lot. I don’t mind pumping my own gas, and I certainly don’t mind waiting my turn.  If someone is given preferential treatment, however, my primate blood starts bubbling.

Gas pump
 
Although I’m middle-aged, I keep starting my career out again at entry level.  I’m sure I’m not the only highly trained professional in this boat.  In fact, I keep an eye on LinkedIn so I know that it’s not at all rare.  As I sit and watch the available jobs go to those younger than me, I wonder about the ethics of it all.  After all, I’m very nearly the same age as the President, and that makes me shudder.  Here’s the ethical quandary:
 
When I was a student in the late 1980s and early 1990s, those of us in doctoral programs enrolled because we were encouraged to do so by the academy.  No one can see the future, of course, but in academia it seemed if it was status quo ante from here (then) to eternity.  There would be lots of jobs, and those of us with the talent were actively recruited to enter doctoral programs and—here’s the ethics part—help meet the need that was about to come!  Did we want to see university positions vacant?  Of course not!  So we gamely stepped up, read our brains out, defended theses (far more than 95 of them) and found ourselves in a world with no room for us.  I managed to get a job, unlike many of my colleagues.  When I was let go, however, I discovered that the viable jobs were being snapped up by younger candidates.  These were students who’d entered the fray after we already knew it was a dying market.  They had the virtue of being younger, and therefore cheaper, and so the academy blithely moved on to forget those of us who’d gone through when everything short of a promise told us there would be jobs. There’s an ethical issue here.  If you know there are no jobs, should you be giving first shot at the few there are to those who entered the system when there was a future?  We used to call it paying our dues.  Now, it seems, those who’ve paid into the system all their lives will get nothing from it.  I’ll be the guy at the gas station ready to fill your car.  If you pull in behind somebody else, you’ll have to wait your turn, however.  I’ll insist on it.

More Rainbows

There’s been a lot of rain this June. In between there have been some glimpses of sunshine. When the rain and sun combine, I always look for rainbows. Yesterday there were rainbows. You see, I didn’t realize until physics class that the sun has to be behind you to see a rainbow. It stands to reason, of course, because the light has to be refracted before it can break into its beautiful constituent colors. If any of the colors were missing, true light wouldn’t exist. Even with many of the religious grumbling, the United States took a fumbling step toward justice yesterday. Justice is something that always comes as a bit of a surprise these days. I’m not sure that we can always trust those that money puts into power. Nevertheless, gay marriage is so in the spirit of America that I wonder it has taken so long to become legal.

I’m heterosexual and I’ve been married for over a quarter century. I know the benefits of married life, so why should they be denied any couple that love each other? Raised on conservative Christian literature that taught me homosexuality was evil, it took some intensive education to unlearn what I’d been told. The Bible has very little to say about homosexuality, and in each instance where it does there are extenuating circumstances that must be considered. The Bible, which hasn’t become authoritative for stoning adulterers (heterosexuals all) had somehow been the final word to oppress those whom nature has oriented to the same gender. I had been told “no animals are homosexual.” That is wrong. Documented cases time and again show that homosexuality is as natural as rain. Just ask the bonobos. For literalists that’s a problem because we’re not even, from their point of view, evolutionarily related.

So although it is a cloudy, rainy Saturday morning, I’m strangely optimistic. There may be rainbows today. Now if only we could spread the message wider, raise our voices louder, and maybe join in singing “Amazing Grace.” Maybe we could dare to dream that races and genders should be treated equally. Will our Supreme Court ever make true equality the law of the land? Yesterday brought us over a major hurdle. I don’t want to rain on this parade. Still, justice demands that more work be done. I rejoice with all loving humans that marriage is open to all. Charleston is still on my mind. And if some rain does fall today I can always keep what sun there is to my back and hope that there will be more rainbows.

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Magic Tricks

Magia SexualisTo a scholar who has spent many years studying ancient religions, new religions hold a strange appeal.  After all, we are trained to look at obscure texts from forgotten cultures and to decipher the mute clues they have left behind.  New religions have the benefit of being (generally) documented in ways that ancient religions aren’t, and often exist in societies more literate than those of the remote past.  Finding out about them may be easier, but understanding them may be just as difficult.  In my research on magic, I was led to Hugh B. Urban’s Magia Sexualis: Sex, Magic, and Liberation in Modern Western Esotericism.  I’ve always found Urban’s work engaging, and since this book is one of the few academic studies to investigate magic seriously, I was eager to see what he had to say.  As usual, I wasn’t disappointed.
 
Sex magic is frequently at the heart of magical beliefs.  Urban shows that this has been the case from ancient times.  Those of us who’ve studied ancient Syrian, Egyptian, Mesopotamian, or Aramaean religions aren’t surprised by this.  Those cultures inhabited a world pummeled by magic, and it doesn’t take a genius to figure out that sex might have had something to do with it.  The majority of Urban’s book, however, concerns figures starting in the nineteenth century who introduced new religious forms of sexual magic into the occult circles of their times.  Focusing on a specific practitioner in each chapter, he brings us up to the present with some familiar, or often less familiar, names.  Magic, by its very conception, is a religious idea.  Even if some of the more notorious modern magicians such as Aleister Crowley and Anton LaVey took religion in a darker direction, it was still religion.  The founding of Wicca by Gerald Gardner naturally receives some attention.
 
As Urban notes from the beginning, sex magic is not a topic for titillation.  It involves some transgressive, but also original thought about something that is so basically human that we all know about it even if we won’t discuss it.  And the dark practitioners have seemingly exhausted the vaults of extremism regarding sexuality that even a straight-laced, nay even Presbyterian, culture may find itself with no further options.  Where does one go when the foulest of profanities has been executed?  Certainly not back to the beginning, for we’ve come too far for that.  The postmodern world deconstructs itself leaving us to wonder if there can be any magic left at all.  It is no wonder, I should venture, that Harry Potter was gathering steam even as Urban wrote his book.  Magic will, by its nature, always find a way.

Drumheller Drama

Those who’ve participated in the great drive out west—if you’ve done it you know what I mean—have passed through the range of dinosaurs. Actually, dinosaurs can be found here in the east; New Jersey once had a reputation of the home of the hadrosaurus, before an even larger beast took over the state. In my native Pennsylvania the occasional dinosaur footprint would be found. But to really see the dinosaurs, the west is best. In Makoshika State Park you can find triceratops skulls right out on the ground. You can find plenty of Christians as well. Ironically, we’ve advertised to the world that Christians and dinosaurs don’t mix, but, in fact, they can get along just fine. In a BBC story my wife sent me, one of Canada’s great western dinosaur reserves, Drumheller, Alberta, has a potential clash between sauropods and savior. Seen from one angle, at least. The story by Tom Holland points out conflicting wills for an entrepreneur who wants to build a dinosaur display and a long-established passion play that occupies the space he wants.

Dinos

News doesn’t get read without some measure of drama, so Holland pits the dinosaurs against the Christians. What seems to me, however, as the real issue is entrepreneurial expansion versus what seems like an arcane melodrama, the reenactment of Jesus’ death. Ironically, the greater part of North America was colonized by Christians of various descriptions. Many of them established their culture in various ways across the landscape. As a culture, it wasn’t always belligerent, and sometimes even beneficial. Passion plays, once upon a time, were considered the mark of culture. Jesus, I’m sure, knew nothing of dinosaurs but would have had no problem with them, I contend, if he had.

The issue here is less about science versus religion as it is about cash versus culture. Even Ahab turned his face to the wall when he couldn’t have the land that he wanted. If someone else got there first and made a recurring shrine, does capitalism have the right to slough it out of the way? I love dinosaurs. I’ve driven many miles out the way to see dinosaur trackways far beyond the trodden path. These are but shadows of footprints cast millions of years ago. Both dinosaurs and Jesus have their place in our hallowed past. While pictures of Jesus riding dinosaurs may well be over the top, the message perhaps rings true: there’s no inherent conflict here. When someone wants to make quick cash, however, there will always be sacrificial victims involved.

Old Curiosity Shop

I’m not sure how I’ve managed to live in New Jersey eight years without discovering the Old Book Shop in Morristown. Used books represent the opportunity to find things otherwise hidden away, even often from the all-seeing internet. That’s why I visit book sales at any opportunity, and haunt used bookstores. The Cranbury Bookworm, never easy to reach, was denuded of its glory by a greedy landlord and has only a few shelves remaining in a much diminished location. The Montclair Book Center takes a concerted bit of driving from here, but I always enjoy it when I go. Over the weekend, however, the Old Book Shop was my destination. Although it’s not a large space, the books on display are reasonably priced and represent intelligent collecting. I found a book or two on my wish list there, and many more that, were I in a more lucrative line of work, would have come home with me.

One book my daughter found in the science section, Ecce Coelum; or Parish Astronomy, by a Connecticut Pastor, was clearly from the days when science and religion got along better together. A little research revealed the author as Enoch Fitch Burr. What really caught my eye was the dedication, “lectures on astronomy in the interest of religion.” I’m not sure how I managed to leave that book behind, in retrospect. As a layman both in science in religion terms, I have had lifelong interests in both. It’s only been within the last couple of decades that I’ve noticed a growing tension between the siblings. Like all childhood fights, it is a contested matter of who started it. It does trace its roots back to Galileo and Bruno, but more recently to the Creationists and their never-ending campaigns to have their religion christened science. Back when Ecce Coelum was written, science and religion had much to learn from one another.

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Now they no longer speak. Those who believe all answers lie in material explanations treat religion as a mental disease. The conservative religionists call the scientists atheists, as if that were still an insult. Name calling and bad feelings, I don’t believe, will ever lead to the truth. The science of today will eventually find its way into the used bookstores of tomorrow. Religion books have long lined these shelves, reminding me of the day when she was the queen of sciences. She’s often treated as the jester these days. What scientist now declares, “behold the heavens!”? We might actually benefit to a great degree if both the empirical and the ecclesiastical would behold their world with a little more wonder. And tomorrow’s readers will puzzle at our strange hardness of heart.

Don’t Answer Me

Non-directed reading sometimes follows its own track and a reader might become kind of an accidental expert. I wouldn’t claim that for myself, but I have noticed that scholars, until very recently, tended to give the cold shoulder to anything with a whiff of magic about it. Ancient magic is fair game, of course, but anything like post-Enlightenment magic is anathema, a veritable shibboleth of philistine sensibilities. No scholar worth their diploma would study such a lowbrow topic, let alone give it any credence. Popular culture, and increasingly political culture, tend to ignore academics, however. I have, in my exile from academia, become interested in those who consider themselves witches. I have, I realized recently, read quite a bit about the phenomenon and have been casting about for academic treatments that might fill in some of the gaps. It is a fascinating subject.

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Ironically, many religion scholars who swear by a mythological worldview of the first century, devalue magic, or Wicca. Many who study it handle it like a peculiar bug, something that might profitably be placed under the microscope as a living curiosity. The thing is, and I realize that academic institutions often shelter their inmates from the real world, many people still do believe in a kind of magic. It may not involve Harry Potter spells and wands, but everyday life outside the academy sometimes defies explanation. Scientists say it’s impossible, and scholars of religion are quick to lock step. Yet the number of those either openly or clandestinely joining occult groups appears to be increasing. Maybe they know something that the experts don’t?

While working on my academic paper for the Society of Biblical Literature annual meeting, I have run into the amazing void of interest in contemporary magic. The television series Sleepy Hollow has revived some popular fascination with the topic. The curious, however, have few scholarly resources to consult. Here is perhaps the paradigm that shows most clearly why higher education runs into trouble. Could it be that in the academy the Lowells talk only to Cabots, and the Cabots talk only to God? Have they forgotten how the common folk live? Those of us who grew up common are often not welcome in the academy. Our downmarket ways and simian brows mark us as the sort so gullible as to believe in some kind of magic. But the numbers are on our side. And the only option sometimes is to become your own expert.

Power of Gods

PowerOfGodsOnce a biblical scholar, always a biblical scholar. This stuff just can’t be unlearned. Suspension of belief, however, is a necessary component of enjoying fiction. I finally found time to slot in Nancy Madore’s Power of Gods, the second in her Legacy of the Watchers trilogy. In the novel she continues the tale of the djinn who infiltrate the world—well, actually, they have been here from the beginning—causing trouble for human plans. The interesting theme that shows up in this second volume is that people are ill-equipped to see the larger picture. With our limited imaginations and vocabularies, we can’t get beyond this world to see what’s really going on outside. Madore uses the literary conceit of djinn where many would probably use demons, but the result in similar. People are pawns in a cosmic game. Even less than pawns, really, but that’s as far as the analogy will go.

While empirical method is unrivaled in revealing the mechanisms of the physical world, life constantly reminds us that something more is going on. Biology doesn’t always play well with physics. And behind biology is the absolute drive to continue living. Life is addictive. Saying it’s biologically programmed doesn’t answer anything. Call them djinn or call them gods and angels, these beings represent the non-corporeal. At their best, religions also deal with that element of life that goes beyond, but also includes the body. Power of Gods adds, of course, speculative elements to all of this. HAARP is brought into it, and our own government is implicated in spiritual manipulation. Freedom of religion indeed.

To be human is to be subjected to forces we don’t understand. We label them, advertise them, and sell them, but we don’t comprehend them. Elements of life that should seem quite simple are among the most complex. When they get to a point that we are completely at a loss to name them, they become divine forces behind the mundane world that makes up far too much of existence. It’s clear that Madore has written her trilogy with people like biblical scholars in mind. We, after all, share the vocabulary and the concepts. And we understand the idea of an unseen world influencing us in unexpected ways.

Father’s Day

DadI’m not completely stupid.  I know that the Father’s Day ads with which I’ve been peppered all month are nothing personal.  They’re intended to tug at the sentimental heartstrings and get me to spend some money on dear old Dad.  As one of the generation for whom computers were a new household commodity well after college was over, I know that I’m part of a fairly large demographic of middle-age users.  I do wonder, when I see these ads, how many other readers ponder the fact that their fathers have died and that Father’s Day is an occasion as much of mourning as it is of celebrating.  While I know, dear reader, that you’re not my therapist, my father died many years ago after a lifetime of separation from my brothers and me.  I can’t claim to have known him, except in unguarded moments looking into the mirror at the blue eyes he contributed to my genetic code, along with other aspects I can only imagine.
 
Father’s Day can, of course, be a day to honor the memory of, as well as buy things for, dad.  Holidays, however, aren’t really holidays without the changing of hands of lucre.  Although I never tried to think much about it, I never spent a Father’s Day with my father.  I know I’m not alone in this, but many are the days when I believe I would have benefited from a bit more instruction than I received on that front.  “Majoring in religion is not the best career choice,” might have been one of those nuggets I could’ve done with hearing.  The women in my family seemed  to think it was okay.  Even one of my dad’s ancestors was a clergyman.  I like to think that fathers might be able, in some cases, to see farther than their sons.  Call it male bonding.  Call it being a man in a post-patriarchal world.  Call it confusion.
 
I’m all for honoring parents.  I also tend to think people are basically good and that by far the majority of people try to do what they think is right.  They may not have much with which to work, but they try.  I can also think of better ways of honoring them than spending money.  Maybe we could try restructuring society so that those who start out with little might have resources available to move ahead.  If some father’s child has obvious gifts, might we not offer a way for that child to use them and thrive?  As a father myself, I can think of nothing that would make me happier than to see my child have better prospects than I’ve had.  Instead I see a society of one-percenters encouraging us to spend a bit more since, after all, fathers measure their worth in stuff.  The stuff that really matters, at least for this father, include those no longer here as well as those who are yet to inherit.

Shepherds and Sheep

Photo credit: Spencer Means, Wikimedia Commons

Photo credit: Spencer Means, Wikimedia Commons

The murders in Charleston this week are part of an epidemic. The members of Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church join, unfortunately, a growing list of victims of hate. Not only hate, but that subspecies of hatred that calls the unstable to attack in a church, or synagogue, or mosque, as if to defy the very gods with their misanthropy. Growing up we used to be taught that any place of worship is sacred. Then we believed it was because God had made it so, but now it is clear that sacred space is made so by the intent of those who worship. We find places where we believe we’re safe from the trials of the everyday world. A place where God will look over us. A place, dare we call it, of sanctuary. Sanctuary is a concept that has gone extinct. As children we all knew of the concept of “home” in chasing games—the place where you were free and need not worry about someone coming after you. Amnesty was granted at the cry of “olly olly oxen free.”

In the biblical world, we’re told, those in danger could flee to the temple and grasp the horns of the altar and be safe. It wasn’t that someone couldn’t be pulled off, but it was that an inherent respect attended sacred places. No place is sacred any more. Hatred has a way of overriding what we all recognize as civilization. Well-armed youth and a culture of hatred have never led to peace. Xenophobia may be natural, but it can be disarmed through education. Unfortunately, in this country at least, education is not valued. In fact, in the culture wars, those who have the most sympathy for those who commit hate crimes will be among the first to cut education spending. It’s a luxury we can’t live without. We need to teach the meaning of sanctuary again. We need to teach the meaning of love.

Human beings shouldn’t have to rely on sanctuary to be safe. No matter what our racial heritage or gender or orientation, we are all simply people trying to make our way in the world. As a child I knew “olly olly oxen free” meant that nobody would try to tag me if I came out from hiding. I was also taught that the word “hate” was as bad as any swear and that it should not be said. While my mother was teaching me the virtue of love, we were sending young men to kill foreigners in Vietnam. I grew up with no doubts as to which was the superior way. One way leads to life and peace, the other to constant fear and death. The people of Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church have told Dylann Roof that they have forgiven him. They are offering sanctuary to one who has done nothing to earn or claim it. They, like children, lead us.

Pope of Deliverance

As I was out jogging just now, a large gasoline truck pulled across the road, stalling my attempt at healthy living. As I waited for the driver to move, I thought of Laudato Si’. In Laudato Si’, Pope Francis’s encyclical letter, the future seems, for the first time in a long time, an optimistic place. I’m not Roman Catholic, but knowing that the head of the largest Christian body in the world has made an ecclesiastical pronouncement about our responsibilities as citizens of the planet is nevertheless authoritative. A world run by blind greed cannot see the signs in plain sight. We have taken what does not belong to us and have left a wasteland behind. I look back over a lifetime of advocating, in the small way my small voice can reach, for responsible tenancy on the Earth, and feel comforted by such a powerful ally. Perhaps it’s because I’ve never been a property “owner,” buying into the myth that the planet may be purchased, but it has never made sense to me that one species has the right to claim it all for itself, leaving it in a state our mothers would’ve never allowed our bedrooms to have been left, and supposing it is somebody else’s problem. If not ours, whose? We’re the ones paying the rent.

Those responsible for industrial level pollution baulk at the idea of economic fairness. Capitalism rewards the greedy and the only thing to trickle down is tears. Those with money can always count on lackeys to follow, thus when the man in white says this is important, those in red, and purple, and black have no choice but to follow. There’s no escaping the planet. We shouldn’t have to feel we need to escape. We need to take—dare I say it—corporate action. Those of us on an individual level sometimes think we can’t make a difference. Habits can be powerful things. A visit to a landfill can be a mystical experience. The visions you have there won’t be beatific, however. You might begin to understand the Inferno, in any case. We consume, and pollute, as if it is our right to do so. As if our brains have misfired into suicidal sociopaths.

Son, behold thy mother.

Son, behold thy mother.

Where, I have often wondered, is the voice of the church in all this? By far the vast majority of the world’s inhabitants are religious. Religious leaders, embroiled in politics that lead to solvency and power, have frequently neglected to turn out the lights when they’ve left the board room. While it may seem to be an abuse that the Catholic Church is extremely wealthy and highly influential, it may be that the humble leader of such an organization is the only person truly capable of getting attention. The Pope’s voice carries farther than that of any other single individual in the Christian tradition. And the media are already buzzing about the long anticipated Laudato Si’. The Pope begins on a positive note, and if those who make any claim to be faithful pay attention to the truly important message—far more important than fighting condoms or ensuring that half the human race is kept out of the club house—there may be a slight glimmer of hope yet. Maybe religion really can deal with ultimate concerns after all.

Doubt No Alleles

Image credit: Zephyris, Wikimedia Commons

Image credit: Zephyris, Wikimedia Commons

DNA. Is there anything it can’t do? For many decades anthropologists have built painstaking methods to trace developments in human culture. Those of us who’ve studied linguistics in any fashion remember well the many times instructors corrected our false cognates and pointed out family trees of languages that showed who came from whom, based on subtle shifts of orthography or some other aspect of philology. Entire careers could be made in ancient Near Eastern studies by shuffling around the way words were formed and speculating about how they influenced one another. Then DNA. A recent story in the New York Times demonstrates that DNA studies now tell us whence came the Europeans. Among the three groups that eventually settled in Europe were agriculturalists from the Near East, coming along at just about the same time as the Sumerians show up in southern Iraq. They joined the hunter-gatherers already in situ. Their languages, however, did not dominate as a third group, from western Russia showed up and gave (according to DNA) many of the groups their base languages. And here I thought Latin and Greek and Anglo-Saxon had something to do with it.

No doubt we’ve benefitted much from learning about DNA. We can fight diseases that were mysterious, if not divine, in previous centuries. We can learn how closely we’re related to other animal species, or even the neighbor next door. Sneaky fathers can be determined with a precision that sometimes puzzles, such as the recent story of twins who had different biological fathers. Without DNA such a thing could only have been a myth. I wonder, however, what we’re losing in terms of humanity. I suppose we’ll still need a few archaeologists to dig up the remains for scientists to date. And many traditional cultures will still insist that the human remains uncovered be reinterred and not probed and prodded, even after death. We’ll call them backward and superstitious. We’ll consult the genome and decide who to marry.

Meanwhile some hopeless romantic will insist on sitting off in a corner and composing sonnets to the woman he irrationally loves. Looking at the nighttime sky, he may compare her to the beauty of the moon. We know it is a lifeless rock trapped in our own gravity, mechanically reflecting the light of a burning ball of hydrogen and helium 93 million miles away. And if she’ll run this cotton swab across the inside of her cheek we might well be able to tell if she’s a good choice for mating purposes. We’ll also be able to determine the origins of her ancestors and remove a great deal of the mystery about her—there! Won’t that be better than having to woo her and find all that out for yourself? And when your children grow up you’ll point them to the STEM disciplines, since that is the only direction in which there is any human future. And the anthropologists can join scholars of religion as we wait for someone to put the soup in our bowls.

American Bible

BibleInAmericaAny book that sets itself the task of addressing American culture has, it seems, a built-in obsolescence.  Culture shifts are radical and swift, and it would seem that distance is necessary for any serious analysis.  I am reminded of historian Barbara Tuchman’s opinion that history cannot be written without the passage of at least a half-century. We’re simply too close to the subject matter otherwise.  The Bible in America, edited by Nathan G. Hatch and Mark A. Noll, does not claim to be an analysis of the current situation, but it stands as a representative of how much has changed since the 1980’s.  The era in which the book was written is stamped all over it like the Preppy look or Doc Martens.  American culture was very different then.  Some of the contributors noted that the Bible, as we’ve often been told, is on its way out.  Elections of the new millennium would give the lie to that observation, and we might now argue the same, but I wonder if our view is long enough.
 
The source of my wonder is a basic observation.  The Bible was foundational for the idea of the United States.  Those who have joined the “melting pot” (willingly or unwillingly) have been brought into a soup whose stock is Bible flavored.  I’m not naive enough to think that it is undiluted or even anywhere near its original form, but as a former biblical scholar I’m sensitive to the motifs and themes of the Bible and I see them daily in undiminished numbers.  Transmutation is not the same as exodus.  I make no judgment whether this is a good or bad thing.  It simply is.  Those who think it is an exaggeration to put such prominence on the Bible in American culture should read the first couple of essays in this book.  It may have been that without the Bible the will to cross the dangerous water to an uncertain (and to many, catastrophic) future would not have been so pressing.
 
Like most collections of essays, this little volume has a grab bag of wisdom.  Reading it is like taking a stroll through the ’80’s again.  We seemed to know things with a certainty then that has all but vanished these three decades hence.  The Fundamentalist movement provided a Tea Party appropriate to Mad Hatters and White Rabbits alike.  Presidents declared that we were on Crusades again.  Megachurches have the budgets of small developing nations.  I’m not about to make any predictions for the future of the Bible here.  An observation, simple, but fairly obvious, will have to suffice.  Since colonial times, Americans have always had their Bible.  It hasn’t always been the same book, and it hasn’t always been interpreted in the same way, but it hasn’t ever gone away.  I can’t say about the future, but right now I’m about ready to put on my Ray-Bans listen to some Madonna.
 

Vox Humana

You know how it is when you get a song stuck in your head? This is one of the few scenarios that will actually lead me to buy music. I have very specific (some would say “odd”) tastes in music. I love the originals. Long ago I ceased listening to “Christian Rock.” It was a thing when I was attending a Christian college, of course. Many who feared the terrors of the drugs and sex part felt they could be slightly rebellious with the rock-n-roll side of things by listening to various groups that pounded out evangelistic messages with electric guitars and overheated amps. There were, however, amid those groups pretending they were a saved Metallica, some real artists. Somehow some of the songs of Daniel Amos came to my mind. I had all four albums of the ¡Alarma! Chronicles—still do up in the attic somewhere—but we left most of our sound system in Wisconsin. I hadn’t bothered to buy a new needle for my turntable, and I’m not sure I still have the patch cables to connect it if I did. It’s been at least a decade since I heard Vox Humana. The internet made it too easy.

VoxHumana

To understand my quest, you have to imagine the context. It was 1984. I was a rising senior in college and I hadn’t seen much of the world. Having grown up in humble circumstances, I didn’t have money for travel or many material things. When my roommate took me to visit his house and he introduced me to a friend who had a room dedicated to sound equipment and albums, I felt as though I was on another planet. Daniel Amos’s Vox Humana had just been released. Our host slipped it from its yellow cover and played it with all the blinking green and red equalizer lights flashing and I was completely blown away. It was Christian music unlike I’d ever heard. In fact, it was ahead of much of the pop music of the time. As soon as I got back to campus I ordered it from the Christian bookstore. The songs still come back to me when I least expect them to.

Call it a guilty pleasure. My theological outlook is lightyears away from what it was when I was an undergraduate. I still haven’t seen much of the world, but what I have seen of it has changed me in ways that there’s no means of reversing. Although I really can’t afford to be buying music—we’re only paying for electrons any more—I just couldn’t help myself this one time. It’s no longer the ‘80s, and the 1950s sci fi movies DA references in the lyrics are closer in time to the album’s initial release than that release is to me now, but still large swaths of the lyrics are imprinted in my mind, taking me back over the decades. It’s the music of my youth. And it was edgy then. It sounds more conventional, perhaps even old fashioned now. Still, when you get a song stuck in your head, pagan or Christian, there’s really only one thing you can do about it.