Detoxing God

There’s some pretty weird stuff in the Bible. Those who are only familiar with all the “thou shalt not”s are missing a great deal. Some of the material is strange enough to rival Alice’s tumble down the rabbit-hole (Charles Dodgson was, after all, a deacon). Anyone who’s read Ezekiel, or Daniel, or Revelation, knows the feeling of having been slipped into some kind of alternate state of consciousness. As students of the Bible have been saying for decades, “What was Ezekiel on?” I’ve always tried to put these unusual writings into context for my students. Nevertheless, some scholars still explore the possibilities that something more than revelation was going on in the desert. A friend of mine pointed out the website Time Wheel, which has a story about Moses and his experience of the burning bush. Time Wheel is an artistic collective, and the story about Moses is richly illustrated. The title, however, is the attention-grabber: “The Bible’s Moses Was On DMT Says Hebrew Professor.”

The article explores the thesis of Benny Shanon, who suggests Moses may have found DMT in the natural store of psychedelics available in nature. As the piece suggests, you have to accept a literal Moses for this to make any sense. Nevertheless, it does raise an interesting question: did ancient people use hallucinogens for religious purposes? We do know that cultures throughout the world have found alternate states of consciousness to be religious in nature. Before the days of controlled substances certain plants and fungi were known to distort reality. Alcohol was one of the earliest inventions of civilization, or perhaps even predating it. When other views of the world are available, it is possible to say that one is by default the true one? It’s a question we face every morning, to some degree. The dream, another biblical favorite for alternate realities, can be just as real as waking.

Controlled substances are dangerous in large groups of people. Not only have modern scientific techniques refined the active ingredients, but we live very close to one another and erratic behavior, perhaps fine isolated in the desert with a cognizant adult, can lead to problems when other people live right next door. Anthropologists assure us that the use of natural “drugs” is/was not uncommon among many peoples who don’t fall under the rubric of powerful centralized government. But was Moses among them? To me, the burning bush hardly seems fantastic enough to require a chemical explanation. In fact, detailed study of even such books as Ezekiel and Revelation often reveal a much more mundane reality behind the writing. Still, imagination is often the key to unveiling realities left hidden to more prosaic minds. So why not see what might happen when the religious are left to their own devices in the desert? The results could change the world.

278px-William_Blake_-_Moses_Receiving_the_Law_-_Google_Art_Project


The Last First

Pluto_by_LORRI_and_Ralph,_13_July_2015

Pluto used to be a planet. Humans, in our unfaltering confidence, have downgraded it to a sub-planet, a dwarf planet, as if we know how big a planet ought to be. Even so, the arrival of New Horizons at the mysterious ice world has us all interested once again in the has-been wanderer. For ancients looking into the fixed stars of the night, the planets were all mysterious. They move against the backdrop of the stars that always maintain their places. When the planets came to be named, the gods suggested themselves. Our modern names, of course, reflect the Roman borrowings of Greek gods. Many of the Greek deities go back to ancient West Asia, where even Zeus has a strong counterpart in Hadad, or Baal, and Aphrodite is recognizable as an aspect of Ishtar.

Pluto, or Hades, was the ruler of the underworld. He was known to be decidedly rich since, well, if you can’t take it with you, someone has to inherit. Pluto, like the devourers of Ugaritic mythology, was forever hungry. Insatiable. This association of wealth and death gives us our word “plutocracy,” rule by the rich. As Bruce Springsteen sang, the poor want to be rich, and the rich want to be kings. “And a king ain’t satisfied til he rules everything.” Who says mythology isn’t true? As New Horizons flies by, we will learn more about the hellish world perpetually frozen so far from the sun. We wonder if perhaps we’ll learn more about ourselves by peering into the farthest rock from our star, Sol’s youngest child. Hades was the brother of Zeus, the king of the gods. Even Zeus had to dispose of the Titans to claim that title. In a scenario going back to ancient times, the younger generation—those we recognize as gods—struggled to make it to the top. As the paper describes it, Pluto is the last first—the last “planet” that is being closely examined the first time.

I grew up in a nine-planet solar system. I recall learning of Clyde Tombaugh’s discovery of Pluto, marveling at the math and patience required. Now that we’ve reached the outer fringes of our solar system, our little piece of the galaxy, we’re still uncertain how to occupy the earth. Many claim that science will vanquish religion completely, and that those who believe are hopelessly superstitious and uncritical in their thought. And yet, if we were to take a close look inside New Horizons, this technological wonder that has reached the farthest point of our sun’s gravitational influence, we would discover a small package of Clyde Tombaugh’s ashes inside. The man who discovered Pluto is the first to actually go there, although he’s been dead for nearly two decades. Even the most stoic of scientific minds must pause for a moment and appreciate the profound symbolism of this illogical gesture.


Tales of Wonder

OnceUponATimeI knew of fairy tales as a child, but I recall them mostly being mediated through the Wonderful World of Disney on Sunday nights, just before bath time.  I don’t recall experiencing them in written form, and although I may have experienced them as narrated versions from time to time, my memory is mostly of the animated variety.  I’ve been reading about fairy tales lately since folklore clearly relates to many sacred narratives.  My most recent book on the subject is Marina Warner’s Once Upon a Time: A Short History of the Fairy Tale.  Like most of Warner’s books, this is a unique telling, one which takes into account modern and some post-modern concerns.  Addressing what fairy tales tell us about the supernatural, gender, psychology, and growing up, this is a little book with big thoughts.
 
Unlike the polished literature of the elites, fairy tales come from the folk, the common person.  In this sense they are often truer than the establishment version of things.  Life can be violent and magical, and nobody raises an eyebrow when something supernatural occurs.  These tales often contain uncomfortable truths.  Fairy tales may help children to cope with eventualities, but they also unsettle along the way.  Rare is the tale where someone doesn’t die before it’s all over.  Like many disenchanted adults who’ve discovered the promises society makes to be false and hollow, I find returning to fairy tales as an adult somewhat therapeutic.  Long ago in a land far away often sounds much better than here and now.  Nor is it pure escapism.
 
As Warner points out in the very final thoughts of the book, fairy tales have come to be treated as scriptures.  Like scriptures, they turn into myths.  Myths may be retold, deconstructed, reassembled, and applied to many situations to inform us of the human thing to do.  We sell ourselves short by not recognizing the other scriptures that wisdom has provided down the ages.  While most of the folk wisdom we have preserved in the canon of fairy tales don’t go back to the Bible, they do retread some of the same territory.  By calling some of it scripture and other secular, we might miss that very many of the truths are similar indeed.  The assumption that growing up means leaving truths of childhood behind may, on occasion, bear reexamination.  If we look closely at our fairy tales we may discover that we should keep them close at hand, no matter what our age.


Ever on a Monday

No matter how early you go to bed on Sunday night, Monday morning comes too early.  The only thing that makes my long, penitential commute survivable is the book that will take me away for an hour or more on the way to the city.  At the Port Authority Bus Terminal it’s pretty obvious that people are in no hurry to get to work as they shuffle along at a speed that says, “I’m taking the subway, so why rush?”  The subway doesn’t go near where I’m headed and it is a small hike in the concrete forest.  Actually, parts of Midtown smell more like a zoo on a Monday morning.  I try to get through as quickly as possible.  So when I guy steps in front of me I try to dodge around to catch the light across 8th Avenue.  He doesn’t move, but hands me a slip of paper and recites, “I believe in Jesus Christ.”  First thing on a Monday morning.  He got out of bed to tell frustrated commuters his personal credo.  I stuff the yellow paper in my pocket and try to avoid kamikaze taxis all the way across town.

Word4Today_0002
 
I’m always curious about those who brave the crowds of New Babylon with the news that they have the truth. I pull the paper from my pocket.  I decided to check out the website on the cheap tract.  It seems that the Church of Bible Understanding (it seemed to be all in small caps) has formed a splinter group and is wondering why, despite the grace of God, it isn’t growing like in New Testament times.  I did notice that I was visitor 2429, according to their web counter.  There seemed to be a lot of complicated history to wade through and this was a Monday morning, after all.  The main point seems to be that you don’t need all this churchy stuff, but just belief in Jesus.  Over this, it seems, churches split.
 
I have to wonder about the constantly splintering composition of the Christian tradition.  Recent scholarship suggests that there was no unity at the very beginning.  According to the Bible even Peter and Paul didn’t always agree.  Although there may have been a very roughly unified church under Constantine, the outer-lying reaches started developing ideas that didn’t always sit well with Rome.  And this was well before the Reformation.  Since Luther’s theses, the number seems to have grown exponentially.  Well, maybe not exponentially, but I am concerned for the spiritual well being of my fellow hive animals on this island made of schist.  It might be easier, though, if we agreed to disagree.  Nobody has the truth that will convince all others.  And for evangelization purposes, getting in somebody’s way on a Monday morning may not be the best proselytizing technique.


Headliners

I sometimes wish I was a journalist. Just this past week a couple of people questioned my journalistic skills for an opinion piece I wrote for Religion Dispatches. I’m fully capable of professional research, but who has the time? Still, being a journalist might be fun. Thinking up clever headlines would be challenging day after day, but nevertheless, it might be enjoyable. Editors who lay the articles next to each other on the page must have a sense of irony. This past week in the New Jersey Star Ledger the central headline read “Killer tightens its grip on N.J.” The column to the right began “Christie to mingle with the uber-rich.” Having lived in New Jersey under Christie’s entire reign, I’m no fan. I’ve despised bullies since I was a kid, and rich bullies are worse than the working class variety. New Jersey certainly seems no better off to me. Now he wants to be President.

FullSizeRender

The real headline, however, about the killer in New Jersey is not yet another prison-break story. It deals with heroin overdose deaths. According to the article, per 100,000 people in the U.S. 2.6 deaths are from heroin overdose. In New Jersey the figure is 8.3. New Jersey, as the most densely populated state (1200 people per square mile, I once read) has its share of problems. Most of us like to pretend that drugs are somebody else’s issue, but I’ve known addicts and they are not evil. When life offers you unrelenting recession after recession and all attempts to better yourself run up against the 1 percent, frustration is inevitable. Even earning a doctorate will only lead to jobless misery. What more can you do than get an education? Heroin is dangerously addictive and it makes the user feel great, I’m told. Society doesn’t offer many other options. At least in Rome they had bread and circuses.

He who would be President, however, can’t be concerned about that. The uber-rich must be fed. And fed. And fed. Those whose ambition to high public office is naked power would be foolish to ignore their fellow plutocrats. Down here on the streets, things look a little dicier. Although I think I understand why many turn to chemical relief, I’ve never been tempted by drugs myself. One of the reasons I turned to religion was the prevalence of drug use in the town where I grew up. There seemed to be no future in substance abuse. I may not have chosen the most promising of ways to move ahead either, in retrospect. Now I find myself living with a governor who represents all that’s wrong with government. And if you’re going to die of drug-related despair, it seems like his particular state is the place it’s most likely to happen. Long live the king!


Law of Rule

Anyone who believes in the rule of law has never been on a broken down NYC commuter bus. There’s a rare kind of tension among the early morning commuter crowd. To put this in context I should say that I awake at 4 a.m. to catch the first us through town, five days a week. I’m usually somewhere between four and six on the passenger count, but if lots of people need to be in New York before sun-up, I may be as far down as 10. I select my seat with care. I tend to sit two seats behind the driver. I prefer the right-hand side of the bus, but there’s a regular who sits there and, I’m given to understand, she’s been doing this for over a decade. So I sit left. It’s never a good portent when I end up having to go four or more rows back. You see, the buses usually unload in a fairly orderly way, the front rows get out first, and each row takes its turn. Since too early is never early enough to be at work, I sit near the front because in the back you can lose precious minutes waiting for those who are sleeping to rouse themselves enough to find their feet and stumble off. If it sounds like I’m overthinking this, it’s because I’ve been awake since before four and how you start your day sets the tone. Where’d I put my coffee? Arriving at the office frantic and sweating isn’t the best way to impress anyone.

There’s a kind of comfort at being at the end of the line of service. Of course, the commute home means you’re on the bus longer than people who can afford to live closer to the City. First on, last off. Although I easily fall prey to motion sickness, I have taught myself to read on the bus. An hour in and two hours out are goodly amounts of time to really get into a book. I hate to waste time.

IMG_2304

You can smell a bus breaking down. I always hope the driver doesn’t catch a whiff, because s/he’ll call the control center and lawyers will dictate that the bus be stopped. By definition, you’ll be late to work that day. So when I smelled something burning, I hoped I was the only one. Luck has never been my strong suit. The driver pulled over and announced, in a soft voice, that we’d have to wait for the next bus. That means I could’ve slept in for ten more minutes.

The next bus is an “express”—that is local compared to my bus. The driver said, “Just stay in your seats, and I’ll call you.” Of course, people started to get off to form a line, despite the captain’s words. In a universal display of self-importance, those who just got on immediately hurry to get off first. They’ll be first in line to get seats on the next bus. Those who obey the driver are penalized. When it became clear that I could hear crickets chirping on the bus, I decided to put away my book and join the line. After quite a wait, the local came. That would get us to the City in time for work tomorrow. Several minutes later the express came. Those at the back of the line behind me hurried over. By the time I’d gotten there, still trying to honor the most ancient of queuing honor codes—the line—all the seats were taken. Those in the front of the line, now the back, headed over to take first place again, since they had expected the rescue bus to pull in front of our smoking wreck instead of behind, where it did. They weren’t shy about elbowing their unrighteous way to the front when the next bus came. I’d been on the abandoned bus since before 6 a.m. I made the third bus. The guy in my row on the adopted bus tried hard not to make room for a new passenger next to him. I was headed to New York where, I know, all the rules are off.


A Hollow Man

HollowEarthQuirky ideas stimulate the intellect. I’ve always had a fondness for the outré, those ideas slightly beyond the pale of normalcy. Sometimes taken dead seriously by intelligent people, these ideas have cultural staying power. David Standish’s Hollow Earth is a cheeky tribute to those who’ve taken the idea of the underworld to literal and literary depths. Ideas that the world might be hollow have been around for some time. Not everyone, it seems, was convinced by Copernicus and Galileo. Standish traces the more modern exemplars of those who have, with stone-faced sincerity, declared that the earth is hollow. Of course, some, such as Edgar Allan Poe, were hoaxers, but they were building on those who appear to have seriously believed it. The character after whom the mythical polar entrances to the world inside is named is John Cleves Symmes. An otherwise rational fellow, it seems, Symmes decided that the earth was like a globe and that a world much like the outside awaited those intrepid enough to get to the inside. There would be light, plants, oceans—a veritable paradise found within the earth. This strange idea survived Symmes and even the exploration of the poles could not dissuade those who believed large caverns, fed by warm, arctic oceans, awaited those who would patiently explore.

Standish notes the womb-like ideals of many of these thinkers, twisting fictional accounts together with the more deluded factual kind. In popular, and not so popular, fiction the hollow earth had a particular resonance. Jules Verne and Edgar Rice Burroughs were among its most ardent fans, using the literal underworld as a setting of strange realms. Others used the hollow planet as the location of a kind of utopia, unspoiled by humanity. Unspoiled, that is, until people arrive on the scene and do what they inevitably do to paradises. It’s in the news every day. Even Alice in Wonderland gets a nod here, as she does fall an awfully long way down that rabbit hole. Fiction writers have made a boon of this bogus idea.

The most interesting, to me, character in this story is Cyrus Reed Teed. A denizen of the Burnt Over District in New York, Teed restyled himself Koresh (yes, there were others) and made the hollow earth one of the doctrines of his new religion. Distantly related to Joseph Smith, his new faith was not as successful as that of his cousin, but nevertheless, Koresh did manage to gain a following of a few hundred and establish a compound to himself where he influenced local politics to his wishes. The story has a sad ending, however, as local ruffians (including the sheriff, like in a bad western) roughed him up so badly that as an older gentleman he died perhaps as a result of his injuries. His movement fell apart and the world grew solid once again. The world really has no place for dreamers, and yes, at such times it seems to be made of very unyielding stuff indeed.


Forbidden Words

800px-Norsemen_Landing_in_Iceland

In keeping with the spirit of freedom, just before July 4 the BBC broke the story of Iceland’s blasphemy laws having been struck down. Although the state Church of Iceland (Lutheran by denomination) supported the move, other churches have been grumbling. It’s an odd notion, that blasphemy should be illegal. Part of the oddity revolves around disagreement of what blasphemy is. Even if taking the name of God in vain is used to define it, several questions remain. Which name of God? Certainly “God” is not a name, but a title. Is taking the title of God in vain blasphemy? What does it mean to take a name in vain? If you don’t mean it? I’ve surely heard many invoking the divine in curses that were most certainly sincere. Were they blaspheming? Does blasphemy really mean failing to believe in God? And, pertinent to Iceland, which god is protected under such laws?

Religious pluralism is the clearest threat to those supporting blasphemy laws. Underlying to very proposition is the idea that there is only one true God and that is the God of Christianity. Judaism might be tacked on there, as might a reluctant Islam, but the notion of blasphemy does not seem to bother the deities of other cultures as much. Honoring and respecting belief in deities is fine and good. In fact, it is the decorous way to behave. Still, privileging one deity as the “true god” protected by state statutes is to bring politics into theology. Since when have elected officials really ever understood what hoi polloi believe? In Iceland the old Norse gods have recently come back into favor. Should they be respected to? Why not as much as the Christian God?

It is perhaps ironic that the Pirate Party put forward the successful bid to strike down the law on blasphemy. According to the BBC, the Pirate Party began in Sweden and has now established itself in 60 countries. Since it’s fight for accountability and transparency in government, it’s sure to have a hard time in the United States where bullies can run for President unashamed. What is clear is that although governments make and enforce laws, the will of the people seldom makes itself heard. We may have won some victories in recent days, but there are many entrenched ideas that benefit those in power and not their underlings. Sounds like the Pirate Party may become the Democratic Party of tomorrow. If it does, however, when it loses sight of the ideals that launched it, we may need a new party to board the ship and ask for the people to be heard. Politely, and without swearing, of course.


Contacting Faith

Contact_0001Sometime after the movie Contact came out, I saw it while on a flight to somewhere here or there. As with most movies on airplanes, it didn’t receive my full attention and I seem to recall not hearing a lot of the sound. Having always been intrigued by the possibility of aliens, however, I told myself I’d watch it again. Several months ago I did just that, but as Carl Sagan hoped, much of the story had become somewhat dated. I finally finished reading the novel, and this was a case of the book being better than the movie (as is frequently the case). A number of things surprised me about the story, the primary one being just how prominent religion is in the plot. In the movie some crazy preacher sabotages the first machine just as it’s nearing completion, and even though Ellie Arroway is long connected to Palmer Joss, their relationship doesn’t seem to dominate the script the way it does the book.

Almost immediately upon reading about adult Ellie, it became clear that religion was a major interest that Carl Sagan had. While the chiliasts receive many scathing comments throughout the novel, thoughtful Christian thinkers, such as Palmer, find a way of being taken seriously by Ellie, despite her own personal unbelief. Unable to understand how someone could not accept the evidence before their eyes, she wants to belittle religion but can’t when serious thinkers like Palmer remind her that they have a sophisticated worldview as well. The story represents a long struggle between alternative outlooks. While as a novel it doesn’t always flow, it pulls the reader along, partly based on the intriguing character of Sagan himself.

Carl Sagan believed in life on other planets. He was less sanguine about the possibility of either ancient astronauts or current-day visitors from space, but he kept an open mind. While he was the respected author of numerous scientific papers, other astronomers didn’t always know what to make of such a popularizer. Of course I never knew him, but I have to wonder if his true beliefs didn’t appear in his fiction rather than in his factual writing. At times I found the novel slow and plodding, and as the machine gives ambiguous results, I wondered where the rest of the story could go. Sagan profoundly brings the end back to belief. Without evidence, Ellie finds herself in the place of the religious who believe on the basis of experience and faith alone. And she finds her best friend is a clergyman. Contact, with its God-like aliens, is really a story of finding oneself a place in an infinite universe. To do that well, Sagan seems to have believed, requires both science and religion.


God, As a Hobby

Just as I was awaking from a night of loud fireworks and multicultural bonhomie, my wife showed me a full-page ad in the New Jersey Star-Ledger. A red, white, and blue page entitled “In God We Trust,” the ad wants nothing more than to convert the nation to conservative Christianity. It is sponsored by Hobby Lobby after all. Dividing the quotes that spangle the page into “Founding Fathers,” “Presidents,” “Supreme Court Justices,” “Supreme Court Rulings,” “Congress,” “Education,” and “Foreign Opinion,” prooftexted quotes are given inadvertently showing by their grasping nature that America is a godly country. The Hobby Lobby is not known for its critical reading of either Scripture or history. George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Benjamin Franklin, Deists all, are quoted at the height of their rhetoric, making it seem as if they were evangelicals out to build a Christian nation.

new doc 10_1

When I was growing up, there were no Hobby Lobby stores in my area. Although I was a religious child, I would have found it a bit odd that hobbyists were not focusing all their attention on the weighty matter of eternity. Instead, making money seems to be the name of the game, and once you’re comfortably over-compensated the Lobby part of the name comes to play and God reenters the picture. We all know that the Hobbyists wish to have the Bible right next to the capital, if they can’t get it prominently placed in the Oval Office. Policy (the ad cites all three branches of government, as well as education) should be based on the Bible, although we think of ourselves as a land of opportunity. Opportunity for whom?

Starting with a quote ripped from the context of Psalm 33 (“blessed is the nation whose God is the Lord”), the ad doesn’t exegete this at all. Nationalism as we know it did not exist when this Psalm was penned. The author had what would become Judaism in mind, not evangelical Christianity. But then, appropriation of other peoples’ pasts is kind of a hobby. Pick and choose. Take what you find attractive and leave the rest behind. It works for history as well as for the Bible. After all, it doesn’t take historical probity to lobby the government. All that’s required is a surfeit of money. And the best way to achieve that, it seems, is to take up a hobby rather than trying to think through the issues with a mind honed by a solid education in Bible and history.


Magic Faith

MakingWe all like to believe we don’t believe in magic. In this day of sophisticated materialism, the idea that unseen forces might work upon the world seems terribly naive and not a little embarrassing. Randall Styers’s Making Magic: Religion, Magic, and Science in the Modern World has been on my reading list for a few years now. Not so much a history of magical thought, Styers offers a history of thought about thought on magic. There are several takeaways from a study like this. One is that magic and science share common ancestors. In fact, some theorists trace the origins of science to magical thought. The height of alchemy was also the period when experimental analysis of the natural world was blossoming. There was a mysterious sense to what we now think of as impassive particles whirling around for no particular reason. Making Magic makes clear that we can’t divorce developed thinking from magical outlooks. In many ways it is difficult to distinguish religion from magic.

Not that Styers advocates magical thought. He does, however, invite us to think about it. Another takeaway from this study is that magic, when described by religious writers, is a foil. Magic is used to show how the unenlightened think about things. Those of us here in the true light would never think such backward thoughts. Indeed, magic, as Styers makes clear, often served as a kind of social control. Lower classes think magic works wonders. The upper classes know that power lies in exploitation. Magic, in other words, can’t be divorced from politics. Those in the know would only encourage magical belief to continue. Invisible forces indeed.

Magic as a regulatory force is indeed the thesis with which Styers is working. The difference between prayer and magic is somewhat effaced when closely examined. Religious belief is seen as benefiting society while magic is for selfish benefits. I do wonder, however, where the modern magical religions, such as some branches of Wicca, would fit into this scheme. They also seek the good of society. Magic need not be selfish. Making Magic is concerned with the analysis of magic by scholars who’ve shown a surprising interest in the topic. It doesn’t really address those of today who, after finding the atomic world strangely vacuous, have turned to magic to re-enchant a world grown dull and dry. Whatever one may say about magic, it still exists, and its believers are among us. Our world with its solemn, feelingless answers could, at times, use a little such conjuring.


Only Takes a Spark

Fireworks have been the main event for Independence Day celebrations ever since I was a child. The fourth of July is a day for playing with fire. As a child I remember spending the meager allowance I had on sparklers and snakes. I haven’t seen one of those ash snakes for decades now, but the impression they made remains strong. A plug of some kind of carbonish material—you’d light the top with a match and it would flame and hiss and start to grow into a long, twisting exoskeleton of ash. They left a blackened circle on the sidewalk, and when they were cool enough you could try to lift the fragile snake in your hand, but it almost always broke apart before blowing away in the breeze. We also wasted our money on smoke bombs with their multi-colored smoke, but we never had actual firecrackers. Given the trouble we could make with an ordinary roll of caps, that was probably a wise decision on our mother’s part. All of this, however, was just a prelude to the fireworks.

As I sat under a cloudy sky last night wondering why every July fourth seems to rain, it occurred to me that fireworks are a violent form of celebration. Indeed, they are designed to imitate the sounds of battle—before the nuclear age—and we all know the thrill of when the loud, bright burst of pure light sends a shock wave through you. It is like a canon rocking your soul. Like many stirring experiences, fireworks had religious overtones from the beginning. Invented in China, fireworks were used for religious festivals. They were believed to be effective at driving away evil spirits and bring good fortune. Pyrotechnics, however, clearly have military applications as well. It is this strange nexus between religion and violence that makes, I suspect, fireworks displays so compelling.

IMG_2287

The local display here in Somerset County, New Jersey, was impressive for a region without large cities. I couldn’t help pondering the strange aesthetics of contained violence as the colorful explosions took place over my head. Illusions, I know. We always talk afterward about whether some of them are meant to represent anything. Did you see a smiley face, the United States, or even New Jersey? It depends on your angle of view. Is this a religious display or a celebration of violence? Looking around at the amazing diversity of peoples gathered here in this park with me, I feel strangely satisfied. I hear languages I don’t understand, and see people from all over the world here for a good show. Although thousands of us try to get to our cars at the same time, spirits are positive, for the most part, and all go home in a celebratory mood. Maybe the ancient Chinese were right and these pyrotechnics do drive away evil spirits after all.


High Places, NJ

The “high place,” in the Hebrew Bible, was a source of constant vexation to the “orthodox.” Scholars have long puzzled over what was meant by the term, the assumption early on being that they were geographically the highest points around. Although that interpretation no longer holds the sway that it once did, the concept of the high place has remained. I suspect that’s because there’s something mystical about being at the highest point around. July 3 was a rare holiday for everyone in the family, so this year we headed to High Point State Park. High Point is the geographical highest point in the state of New Jersey, up near the New York border. It’s not as high as the mountains you might see in the western part of the country, but at the top there is a panorama that gives unbroken visibility in 360 degrees. Except for the tower.

DSCN5093

Towers are just as biblical as high places. They are very human and always contain at least a small element of hubris. Nature may have said thus far and no further, but we can go higher. And those of us with the inexorable will to climb, must go up. The view from the top isn’t very good since the windows are steamy and the mildew makes you a little leery of getting too close, but the climb is intensive, even for those used to stairs. Nevertheless, a kind of light-headed giddiness attends standing at a point higher than which you cannot go. I pulled out my altimeter to discover we were 1690 feet above sea level. In New Jersey you can’t get any higher. Were there angels up here? How close to Heaven were we? Towers are irresistible as the mythical builders of mythical Babel knew. And although we couldn’t see Manhattan from here, I knew that just across the river taller towers stand.

DSCN5109

One World Trade Center stands at a symbolic 1776 feet, higher than we were at the moment. It was, after all, the requisite holiday to celebrate independence that brought us here in the first place. The vistas that we could see, however, were relatively undeveloped, a rarity for the state of New Jersey. If we had the time, we might have been able to get out into nature itself instead of these structures that humans build to mask the fact of our own limitations. Maybe that’s what high places were all about in the first place. Every day I walk past the Empire State Building on my way to work. I can see it if I find an office with windows. Over my head up here, on the very top of New Jersey, I see a bird soaring. I think of Melville, and Ahab, and Manhattan. Slowly I begin my walk down to lower places.

DSCN5099


Ethics for Rent

Ironically, the Bible is the basis for the western preoccupation with land ownership. What with commandments against stealing and coveting, the Israelites had a sense of being promised a land by God. It was their land and no human motivation—including imperial conquest—could trump the divine will. In the western world, so heavily influenced by the Bible, the concept of private property is itself considered sacred. If enough land to sustain yourself is good, even more land than you need must be better. That’s logic. Land-grabs by the powerful are nothing new. In America (land stolen from the original owners) no better symbol of affluence exists than property ownership. Like many things biblical, this is often a myth. Although I’m a white, Anglo-Saxon, straight, Protestant, I grew up among renters. My family couldn’t afford a house. When my mother remarried, my step-father owned his house and it was in such bad shape that as soon as he moved out to a rental property, it was immediately razed. On my own, I’ve always been a renter because I couldn’t ever afford to be anything else.

After Nashotah House, my wife and I considered buying. Wisconsin, apart from having no jobs, seemed like a nice place to settle. We researched. Your mortgage payments should be no more than 30 percent of your income, we learned. Living in suspended animation since those days, we’ve rented in a variety of places and the 30 percent figure has also turned out to be a myth. Affordable housing, in the United States, is set at that benchmark. A recent news byte in the Christian Century notes that in not one of the fifty united States is it possible to rent a one-bedroom apartment on 30 percent of minimum wage. 49 hours of work a week would be necessary to meet that benchmark in South Dakota, the state with most affordable housing. I know professors of Bible who own summer houses. That’s in addition to their regular houses. Meanwhile, many who would like to own something much more modest can’t afford even that.

The biblical worldview is an idealistic one. Recognizing that greed is inseparable from human will (even among a chosen people) the hope was that the poor would be taken care of by those who had more than their share. As the statistically inclined like to say, the numbers don’t lie. Housing, one of the most basic of all human needs, is exploitatively expensive. Many renters can never break out of the cycle of paying too much in rent so as not to be able to save up enough to make a down-payment on a place of their own. Yet prices go up while raises don’t keep pace with inflation. It’s all about ownership. Laws are in place to protect those who take (“legally”) for themselves. The rest pay into the system at three times a tithe. And even this, the numbers say, isn’t nearly enough.

Rent


Burning Times

One of the most disturbing images from my childhood years is the self-immolation of Thích Quảng Đức in Saigon. Of course, I didn’t see this image as a child. It was high school before I was deemed mature enough (and the internet didn’t exist) to see such a troubling image. Now we are being told in a kind of gleeful grotesque tongue-in-cheek that those who seemed to claim similar conviction over gay marriage now have a chance to show their faith. Pastor Rick Scarborough, according to The Advocate, made such a statement. As of last Friday, he’s had to find a way to explain his remarks. I’m not sure what he said, but I find the implications distressing. Those who’ve supported gay rights all along haven’t been wishing evil on anyone. Schadenfreude can be quite troubling.

Maybe it’s just that we get so tired of self-righteousness. Those who claim to be the torchbearers of the truth seem to delight in pointing out the weaknesses that we all have. Who has never misspoke? Let he who is without sin cast the first syllable. Rhetoric can be our master at times. Beneath the unfortunate speeches, however, lies a terrible fear. Some who believe the Bible literally true can’t see this any other way. Poking fun at them, however, isn’t likely to make the situation any better. Quiet victory celebrations aren’t in fashion. We live in an “in your face” world where we like to see the stains appear on the immaculate suit. Banana cream pie in the face all made up for the television crowd. I’d rather see a world with no more need for self-immolations. Religions sometimes make this difficult.

Although I have reflected on religion deeply for many years and have come to take a very broad view of things, I still have very conservative friends. If I poke fun at their views from time to time I hope it is good-natured fun. I respect their rights to their views. I grew out of that culture myself and I’d be a hypocrite if I looked at it any other way. I am extremely pleased about the supreme court decision recognizing gay marriage. This, however, is a political issue. Religion has always informed political views, and has not infrequently stood in the way of fair treatment. These walls must come down. Before we begin the demolition work we need to make sure the way is cleared of any potential victims. One thing religions frequently do right is offer consolation to those who are suffering. It is the humane thing to do. Victory without humiliation is far better than the flames of Waco.

800px-Mountcarmelfire04-19-93-n