Monthly Archives: September 2015

Meet the Neighbors

I was called “moon boy” and was otherwise taunted in ways I care not to share. As a child I openly spoke about my fascination of life in space and was ridiculed in the way children specialize in executing humility. So it was with great appreciation, but not much surprise, that I read that water had been discovered on Mars. Where there’s water, there’s likely life. I won’t say “I told you so.” Life, although I know I’m being premature—I’m a moon boy after all—has been one of the many tools in the God-of-the-gaps bag. God-of-the-gaps thinking is where a religion, in the light of scientific explanation, backs and fills by saying only God could do x, y, or z. The weather used to be a gap, but meteorology and fluid dynamics have started to explain many of the things that happen in the atmosphere. But life—life! Life was something only God could do, and it was only here on earth. Mind the gap.

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No, we’ve not yet discovered life on Mars. Those who spend every hour of their waking days combing at incredible magnification the photographs coming from Mars have suggested life forms. Some of them, I must admit, have been very intriguing. The official stance, however, has been that Mars is too cold for life because, as any trekkie knows, life has to be as we know it. I would venture to say that life will be announced on Mars before too long. Astronomers and astro-biologists are a cautious lot, but I think that life is probably a lot more common than we’ve been led to believe. And I have to believe that we’re not the most intelligent species possible. How else can we explain what’s happening in the run up to the Republican Convention? E.T. may not live on Mars, but somebody else might.

Often I ponder how strange our geocentrism is. Copernicus and Galileo more or less proved that we’re not the center of the universe. Reluctantly the church let go of that fiction, but scientists, in some measure, have held onto it. We are the only planet with life. Life on our planet is the most advanced that it is anywhere. And because we know that nothing travels faster than light there’s no possibility that life elsewhere has ever found its way here. To claim otherwise is to face a scientific inquisition. Water on Mars? Yes! This is a new chapter not in the history of the universe, but in appropriate humility in the face of the unknown. Take it from the moon boy—there’s a lot more yet to be discovered.

Forbidden Love

LadyChatterleyBanned Book Week is upon us. In that time of year when we begin to think of spooky, scary things, the prohibition of literature naturally comes to mind. Every year I try to read a banned or challenged book for the occasion. This year I went to perhaps the jugular vein of banned books, Lady Chatterley’s Lover, by D. H. Lawrence. Now, I’m not a romance reader, but I was curious about this sexually explicit novel that had been banned to the point of being outlawed and was now considered a classic. Lawrence’s last novel, it tells the tale of a woman escaping a loveless marriage with the help of lover below her social class. The steamy bits are tame by today’s standards, but Lawrence does use several words that are still rarely heard in the media due to their offensiveness. From my perspective the story was a bit too drawn out, and the fawning wasfs a bit over the top. What struck me even more, however, was the fact that this novel was largely about social justice. Not that Lawrence was an activist, but his concern for the poor and discarded of the industrial revolution is quite clear throughout the novel. The privileged having affairs within their class is acceptable. The scandal is that a titled lady falls for a common gamekeeper.

I haven’t read Fifty Shades of Grey, a franchise that has made even romance writers jealous. From the criticisms I hear, however, the concern is less the sex than it is the lack of literary value. I’m sure Fifty Shades of Grey is a banned book in some location. Still, the deeper concern for humanity that runs through Lady Chatterley’s Lover is part of its appeal. Several times I put the book down thinking, “this isn’t just surface stuff.” It is, baldly put, the search for redemption. Sir Clifford is an invalid who wants to control others. In an era when men laid claim to control of women’s sexuality this was no small demand. He also sees his coal miners as pieces in a larger game that is, it turns out, only to his own benefit.

Although the book ends with the lovers parted, and hoping for reunion, Lawrence’s final words turn toward economic oppression. Mellors (the gamekeeper) writes, “If you could only tell them that living and spending isn’t the same thing!… If only they were educated to live instead of earn and spend…” He defines Mammon as “wanting money and hating life.” No doubt, the book was a vehicle for Lawrence’s desire to see writing about sex to be part of literature and not pornography. Still, there is something deeper here. The story is more than carnality, although carnality is what brought it to fame. It is a banned book that proclaims liberty that, despite the license of contemporary society, is not really as free as it might seem. As banned book week unfolds, it is a moral obligation, I believe, to read those books that have threatened settled mindsets and raised the ire of censors. In so doing, we learn what it is to be human.

Powerful Movies

PowerOfMoviesOur friends were shocked. I don’t even remember the title of the movie, but they couldn’t believe we had gone to see it. Not because of the content of the film, but because it had been shown on a Sunday morning. Why hadn’t we been in church? This was back in Edinburgh when we had very little money—wait, we still have very little money. This was back in Edinburgh, and we had won free tickets to an early screening of a new movie. The showtime was on Sunday morning. So in our own version of weak-willed athletes from Chariots of Fire, we’d skipped church to go see the movie. I don’t remember the title and I remember very little of the film. It had something to do with Richard Wagner and a conductor. An art film. We didn’t really feel too guilty missing church to go, since at the time, it seemed like a rare opportunity and the movie was, in some sense, religious. Or at least mythological.

Movies have a way of really influencing people. Thus it has been since the invention of the art form. We’ve all had the experience, I suppose, of a movie hitting us with a profound impact. It never really occurred to me to ask why. That is, until I read Colin McGinn’s The Power of Movies: How Screen and Mind Interact. I’d always thought that movies were simply a successful form of entertainment, and scholars seldom take entertainment seriously. As McGinn makes clear, there’s a lot more than casual watching going on when we slip into the theater. As a philosopher, McGinn is duty-bound to look beyond the obvious. Time after time in this profound little book I found myself pausing to consider the implications of what he says. Ultimately, he suggests that movies access the same areas of the brain that dreams do, not only giving them dreamlike qualities, but also making films emotional experiences like dreams.

At one point, McGinn draws explicit connections between going to church and going to a movie. Beyond the superficial aspects of a darkened building with a performance meant to impact a person, there are clear parallels between going to the theater and going to church. Both can be transformative experiences. The Power of Movies is a powerful little book. As much as we like to think that we have custody of our minds, the realm beneath the surface—that which gives us dreams and syncs with movies—has more influence on us than we’d generally like to admit. More and more, scholars are beginning to realize that films do have a profound impact on viewers. This is not just entertainment. It may not be worship, but after reading McGinn I think it might not be too far from it. The mind able to dream, after all, is a mind that’s truly free.

Rutgers Presbyterian

It is indeed an honor to be invited to address a church group on topics that matter. While I didn’t directly address global warming in my book, it was in my mind as I wrote it. Early in my teaching career, I wasn’t sure how to cinch up the gap between the lexicography I was attempting and the real world issue that it should address. The seminar portion of yesterday’s program focused on topics associated with the weather, and I was gratified to hear that many of those present felt that a profound weather event had made an emotional impact upon them. Weather has a way of reminding us that we’re small and that forces beyond our control still exist. I’d forgotten how nice it is to while away a few hours with intelligent people who think about the world we all inhabit. I only wish I could have recorded all the wisdom I heard. We tend to think if someone’s not speaking to us from a major media outlet they’re not worth listening to. I am glad to be reminded that this is not so.

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During our discussion of global warming, the question arose as to what we could call “climate change” to make it appropriately terrifying. Various suggestions were made such as poisoning the sky, suffocating the earth, and old-fashioned, and to-the-point air pollution. We are a species that seems bent on its own destruction. The atmosphere is so incredibly large, but, as our host reminded us, so very thin. Life is supported only in what might be considered, in his words, a thousand-story tower. Beyond that, life runs out. We need to take the limited nature of this small envelope of gas surrounding us seriously.

I’ve come to realize that my fascination with the weather largely derives from looking at the sky. Such an activity is so basically human and so profound, that we simply overlook it most of the time. The sky is superior to us. It was, for most of human history, far out of reach. We have stretched our hands up to the realm of the gods and smeared it with our industrial filth. Many of those present, although not Catholic, applauded the Pope’s insistence that the world must be view holistically and that we must stop polluting our home. Pollution used to be an ugly word, but we have been taught to change our language to add ambiguity. “Climate change” is so neutral, with no one to blame. But it’s not at all accurate when it comes to the real costs. We’ve already impacted the weather for a millennium into the future at least. And I, for one, left our session optimistic that intelligent people cared enough to spend a beautiful Saturday afternoon discussing it.

Pontificating

I’ve been in a few New York crowds, but this one seemed on its best behavior. I was in the city later than usual since I’m giving a talk today at a friend’s church in the Upper West Side. My wife came to meet me and, knowing the Pope was going to be saying mass at Madison Square Garden shortly after her train arrived at Penn Station (for out-of-towners, Madison Square Garden sits atop Penn Station) we decided to meet at Herald Square and avoid the other kinds of masses. I walked to the square from work and realized my mistake—34th Street was barricaded and there were crowds already beginning to form. The Pope had a procession through Central Park, but I neglected to check on the remainder of his route. My wife arrived and, taken in by the rush of the moment, decided to stay and see what we could see. We were literally one person back from the road. The police kept saying that they couldn’t confirm he was going to come this way, but the helicopters hovering overhead seemed to tell a different story.

The crowd was so well behaved. No pushing or shoving, and even loud talking was mostly absent. It was, believe it or not, kind of reverent. Sure there were people with placards suggesting that one should get right with Jesus, and the occasional pedestrian saying, and I quote, “Why is there so much people here? The Pope? You’ve got to be kidding—can’t we cross the street?” By and large, however, there was good will. One of my coworkers had emailed during the day saying she’d gone by Saint Patrick’s the night before, but couldn’t see him. The crowd, she commented, was kind spirited. Perhaps that’s what having a kind-spirited Pope will do. After we’d stood for nearly an hour, I was beginning to wonder if the motorcade had taken another route—7th Avenue was closed as well. Then the cheering began.

Pope Francis rode by, the window down, waving at the crowd. My glimpse was only a fragment of a second, but it was clearly him. I’d met an Archbishop of Canterbury or two in my time, but here I was, no more than thirty feet from the Pontiff, if only for a second to two. And it was all pretty much by accident. Life surprises us that way sometimes. Reading his words about climate change to the leaders of the world, I can’t help but think we’ve needed a leader like this man for a long time. He’s as human as the rest of us, and he knows that we have only one world and in that one world are millions of people in need. And global warming will hit them first and hardest. And the God of the evangelicals who say the planet is ours to destroy is not the God he recognizes. He’s just one man, but he is able to bring the largest city in the country to a halt, even if just for a second or two. This could be saying something important for those who have ears.

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Apostle

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I was teaching in a seminary when Robert Duvall’s The Apostle came out. Seeing the favorable reviews, I put it on my wish-list and somehow it never managed to rise to the top. Perhaps it was because I worked at a religious institution 24/7. Seeing a movie about church felt almost superfluous. Many years on now, my wife bought me the DVD (yes, we’re old-fashioned) and we finally sat down to watch it. I realized, as the preaching started, that I didn’t know what to expect. I assumed that Sonny would be a typical Elmer Gantry-type character, cynical and self-centered, but as I kept waiting for the sneering commentary to come, it never did. The movie didn’t valorize Sonny either—he is a flawed preacher who commits murder out of jealousy and flees the state to start a life elsewhere. Landing in rural Louisiana, he begins building a life doing what he does best—preaching. The local people benefit from his presence, so I was waiting for the cracks to appear, but they never did. The movie is amazingly respectful of Holiness, or Pentecostal religion. It left me quite thoughtful.

Having grown up in a non-denominational setting, the scene of the altar call was one that was familiar to me. Fiery sermons were also something I’d seen before. Theological education, of course, causes one to question much of this, which is why many Fundamentalist churches do not hire seminary graduates to be their clergy. Study tends to refine that ability to let go and have emotion become the substance of the service. Recalling my own childhood, steeped in the Bible and fervent fear of Hell, church was primarily an emotional catharsis for me, not an intellectual enterprise. The problem for me was that I couldn’t stop thinking about it. That’s where it often starts to crumble for those who want to understand emotion-driven religion. It doesn’t mix well with rationality.

The Apostle is made all the more powerful for its use of actual Holiness preachers in the movie. When they’re preaching, they’re not acting. They’re preaching on film. Part of the draw, I suppose, for many viewers is that this is a foreign world. Mainstream church services are often subdued, perhaps even dour, by comparison. They are, however, more rationally driven. The substance of any mainstream liturgy derives in some form from Catholicism. Pentecostalism dismisses all of that, retaining the music and the sermon and the Bible. Otherwise, they are practically different species. The storyline of the movie isn’t anything grand. Preacher commits crime, repents, gets caught. Still, there’s an authenticity to it that makes it compelling. No Jim Jones here. No David Koresh. Just a man, in many ways typical, trying to make his way in the world in the only way he knows how. And that can be inspirational.

The Boy on the Bus

GirlOnTrainCommuting by bus isn’t the most efficient way to do research. While mostly I read non-fiction related to my research interests, monographs are difficult because of the concentration required and the constant interruptions of the road. Journal articles are, still, jealously protected by university libraries so that you can’t access them without an account. So once in a great while I read a novel on the bus to forget it all. I’d heard people talking—literally—about Paula Hawkins’ The Girl on the Train. It is a story about a commuter, and my wife was kind enough to give me a copy for my birthday, so I recently climbed on board to read it. The problem with reading fiction on the commute is that it is difficult to clear your head to negotiate the streets of the city when you’re done. You’re in an imaginary world for a while after you put the book in your bag. The nice thing is you can’t wait to get back on the bus to read some more. It makes commuting bearable. Almost pleasant. Especially when the protagonist’s commute is worse than yours.

I won’t throw any spoilers into this post, but I think it’s fair to say that the story involves trying to find a murderer. It is also a story about adultery. In fact, without adultery there would be no story. I seldom turn to novelists for a course in morality, but The Girl on the Train does have an underlying message that rings true: honesty is crucial for a civil society. The small cast of characters in Hawkins’ book have difficulty being honest with others and with themselves. This makes for a gripping ride, of course, but I couldn’t help thinking throughout that if people were honest the situation would never have occurred. Of course, then there would be no story. And I would’ve had to read something else on my commute.

My reading over the past few years has intimated that something about civilization has put a tremendous strain on people. Whether it is the constant pressure to increase productivity while time off is being stolen by ease of access (cell phones work in the middle of the woods. You can get your email while on a plane), we are never really offline. Our relationships, once the defining factor of who we are, have now become diversions from the time off work. Morality has reverted to what you can get away with. I can recommend The Girl on the Train for those struggling with a long commute. Once in a while I’d look up, surprised to find how fast the trip had gone. It might also give the reader pause to consider the larger implications. Honesty is an undersold virtue. Without it, this civilization we’ve built, and continue to build, cannot long last.