Monthly Archives: June 2015

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.