Monthly Archives: December 2015

Books of 2015

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It’s the end of 2015 and looking at my records on Goodreads it looks like I read 100 books this year. That tends to be my goal mark, but after twelve months of reading I like to think back over which were the books that have made the biggest impact on me over the year. Joe Bageant’s Deer Hunting with Jesus remains on the most important list. It is joined by Andrew Newberg’s How God Changes Your Brain, Spencer Wells’ Pandora’s Seed, Alice Dreger’s Galileo’s Middle Finger, and Paul Levy’s Dispelling Wetiko. Bageant, Dreger, and Levy especially address some of the root causes of social ills and even make suggestions about how to address them. Newberg offers advice on how to improve brain functioning and Wells taps into the ever-important issue of care for our planet. I read some good academic titles as well: Diana Walsh Pasulka’s Heaven Can Wait, Darren J. N. Middleton’s Rastifari and the Arts, and Ronald Hutton’s The Triumph of the Moon.

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Being a religionist, books with supernatural themes are always of interest. Among these I found intriguing Michael Murphy’s The Future of the Body, David J. Hufford’s The Terror that Comes in the Night, Ardy Sixkiller Clarke’s Encounters with Star People, and Jeannie Banks Thomas’s Putting the Supernatural in Its Place. It seems important to have reasonable people address unconventional issues. These are related to books on monsters, noteworthy among which were: M. Jess Peacock’s Such a Dark Thing, Kim Paffenroth’s Gospel of the Living Dead, Brenda S. Gardenour Walter’s Our Old Monsters, and Lisa Morton’s Ghosts. Long ago I realized that I no longer needed to justify including monsters or the supernatural categorically with religion. They share too many roots to be separated out artificially.

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Finally, it was also a year of novels. Pride of place here goes to Robert Repino’s debut, Mort(e). I am compelled to mention Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam, John Green’s Paper Towns, Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle, and Valerie Martin’s The Ghost of the Mary Celeste. Although I’m not much of a fantasy reader, Tod Davies’ The Lizard Princess has stayed with me since reading it. For any of these books you’ll find an individual blog post from this year. That’s not to say that other books I read weren’t good. Nearly every book I post on Goodreads has a write-up here. I tend to like most books I read, although I’m occasionally disappointed when a book does’t reach its full potential. 2015 was a rich year of reading and I’m looking forward to a very literate 2016.

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Simple Gifts

Thing Explainer, a whimsical gift for my daughter at Christmas, is perhaps the trendiest present found here this year. Randall Munroe, who makes a living as a web comic artist (who knew this was even possible?) wrote/illustrated the book to explain complicated things in simple words. Indeed, he limits himself, with some license, to the thousand most common words in English. Due to the almost viral success of the book, websites now exist so that even those of us with advanced degrees can explain things with common words. It reminds me of the Common English Bible in that it attempts to make something complicated easy to understand by using a level of writing accessible to the majority of readers. Thing Explainer is, naturally, for fun. There is, however, an underlying question.

Have we reached a point where reading itself has to be enhanced by making it simple? Some things are, by their very nature, complex. At a time when more and more kids are being encouraged to attend college, the traditional basis of higher education (the classics, classical languages, the humanities) has eroded so far that higher education is not what it once was. My daughter’s engineering program is highly technical and doesn’t naturally promote the things I recall as “college.” Maybe I need someone to explain it to me in simple words. What’s wrong with being literate? With finding challenging books worth the effort to get through? Some things are complex.

A young couple's anniversary in Wales.

A young couple’s anniversary in Wales.

I wonder how a society survives when complexity disappears. Today my wife and I celebrate our twenty-seventh anniversary. Marriage can be a complex thing, but it is something that can be explained in simple words. When we decided to marry the idea was lifelong commitment, not knowing the twists and turns that life would take. If the Internet existed in those days I didn’t know about it. (Certainly, being a web comic artist wasn’t a job that yet existed.) Doctorates still led to teaching careers. 9/11 hadn’t happened so that living in a modified police state wasn’t yet part of daily reality. There weren’t really words to explain it. It was one of those most basic human things. Turning to Thing Explainer I find that love is one of the thousand most-used words. It does perhaps show, after all, that complex things can be stated in a word we all understand.

Top Predator

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The reboot of Jurassic Park, Jurassic World, has been on my mind. Back in the early days of this century I hadn’t bothered to see either Jurassic Park II or III. The original, despite its faults, was like a childhood dream come true. I’ve always felt that dinosaurs (along with vampires and pirates) made for the best movies, although space has to be right up there in the top since 2001 (not the year, the movie). Since the summer I’ve made a point to carve out time to finish out the holy trilogy of dinosaur flicks. I liked the character Dr. Malcolm in the original, but he should’ve never been the main character of the sequel. The Lost World almost lost my resolve to see the series through. The story was unvarying: humans meet dinosaurs, dinosaurs chase humans. New and innovative means of trying to contain or exploit them try to demonstrate the evils of hubris and greed, but dinosaurs always prevail. Jurassic Park III was a bit better, going back to the original formula but adding something bigger than Tyrannosaurus Rex—the Spinosaurus. It was unbelievable, however, that a paleontology doctoral student couldn’t recognize it, thinking it a mere Suchomimus. At the turn of the century, new dinosaur finds had suggested that Spinosaurus was larger than T-Rex, and the movie reflected the new top predator of the time.

It is the little boy in me that keeps me coming back for dinosaurs. Some of my favorite toys were cheap, molded plastic dinos, and when my daughter was young we bought her all the more realistic (and pricey) Safari versions. When I get to the store, I still stop and look at the species we never acquired and make a wish. I think it’s because dinosaurs represent something we can never have. Species that grew to enormous size and had armor-like skin, and even, if some paleontologists are to be believed, considerable intelligence. Of course, that may just be the movie talking. In a world where all things are equal, we’d never stand a chance against dinosaurs. They are like reptilian deities.

When Amanda Kirby (ironically, the only adult to be addressed by first name in the movie by new acquaintances; the males are called by their titles even after they’ve been through several dinosaur attacks together) sees the incubators at the compound, she says, “So this is how you make dinosaurs.” Dr. Grant (let’s give him his title) responds, “No, this is how you play God.” Playing God is a trope as old as science itself. Planting crops to grow where you want them to grow is playing God in its own way. Creating uncontrollable forces that can destroy you seems to be a uniquely human trait. And so my imagination is drawn back to dinosaur days. Those who make the movies tug on wishes that any mere creature would have: to create its own gods and somehow manage to survive them. Hubris, it seems, is just as human as dreaming of dinosaurs.

Mother Divine

GoddessReligions, by nature, exercise a distribution of power. That power is perceived to be on several axes at once, the “vertical” is intended to represent the power of deities over humanity, and the “horizontal” is that of humans over humans. Historically all we can know is the latter dimension, and during the time of written records, that has been a male-dominated plane. Several years ago a theory developed which would be wonderful, were it true. The goddess hypothesis suggested that before male dominated civilizations took over, culture was run in a more egalitarian way and the goddess was the main deity. Since this theory sets itself before recorded history, artifacts had to be interpreted as evidence, and certainly such bits and pieces of past times have emerged. The goddess interpretation has, however, has faced severe criticism, and not just from male scholars. There are still those who find it tenable, and one such pair is David Leeming and Jake Page. Goddess: Myths of the Female Divine was a book intended to demonstrate the commonality of goddesses, but it didn’t always rise to the challenge.

No doubt, the motivation behind the book was noble. It is important to show that goddesses have been just as important as gods in the history of mythology. The problem emerges when the evidence is forced into a mold it doesn’t fit. “Goddess” is not a singular figure, any more than “woman” implies that all women are the same. Each chapter retells stories of various goddesses, and again this is problematic. Specialists in any one tradition are sure to spot errors and oversimplifications that suggest descriptions of other goddesses may not be completely trusted. There’s an overcompensation here. Men, at least some men, wish to show their support of women by suggesting that women once held esteemed places in the cult as well as in the throne room. What we know of history, however, gainsays this concept since, in one form or another, might has always made right.

Goddess is one of those little reference books whose main value lies in bringing previously disparate characters together to show some commonality. There is utility in placing goddesses side by side to form a phalanx of resistance to a hierarchy that has established itself as normative, backed by a more powerful male deity (or deities) in the sky. Goddesses have been part of religious thinking from the beginning. The early abstractions of natural powers, reason would seem to dictate, would have involved both masculine and feminine powers. We don’t know how such societies were organized, but the divine female was clearly present. By consciously acknowledging what we know, and creatively applying such knowledge, there may be a hope for the future of religions that is far more certain than a reconstructed past.

Social Security

Security. If there’s one thing we can never get enough of, this is it. We look at the future with a mix of perspectives: it’s going to get better, or it’s going to get worse. We want to be prepared for any eventuality. The most recent issue of Wired landed at my door and the cover, apart from Leonardo DiCaprio, features the survival guide. Tongue-in-cheek, along with actual statistics, this feature article gives tips on surviving all kinds of potential disasters. From domestic terrorism to zombies. The zombie advice caught my eye. You can make a pretty effective club, it seems, from rolling up newspaper the right way, with a judicious application of duct tape. It may not help much in instance of domestic terrorism, but who can expect to survive everything?

DecWiredSecurity is fine and good, until it becomes an obsession. Here in the United States, we’ve lived with the belief that two oceans separate us from our most hostile enemies. For sure, we have our fair share of natural disasters: tornadoes, hurricanes, earthquakes, wildfires, floods, even a volcano or two, but these are “acts of God” and we like to think that we can handle those. Our greatest fear, it seems, is our fellow human beings. Isolationism is convenient when we want to direct our own destiny, but when other nations get in the way, we like to extend the borders of democracy a bit. And globalization has opened the doors to all kinds of scenarios where security is at risk. Just try flying as a man with a beard traveling alone. I’m not so sure that facial hair is the greatest threat to the future that it seems to be. (Unless, of course, it is trendy stubble, as the picture of Leonardo DiCaprio shows.)

Security isn’t attainable. The future is always uncertain. There’s a rabbinic saying that a person can’t be satisfied today without knowing that tomorrow’s been taken care of. We don’t know what tomorrow might bring. Or even later today. We fear those who take their faith seriously, and yet the world grows more densely interconnected all the time. Some turn to their holy books to ensure that they are ready for tomorrow. Some even claim that those books tell them in detail what will be coming down the road. Others, I suspect, are gathering newspapers and rolls of duct tape. The future is, after all, what we make it.

Feasting

In addition to music, Christmas has also been associated with seasonal foods. Unlike today, when we think of foods primarily in terms of either fast food or culinary sophistication, Christmas dishes of yesteryear often had religious symbolism. While singing an English carol, for instance, you might hear of figgy pudding. I tried my first when living in the United Kingdom and it was nothing like the images its name conjures. It is more like a dense cake made of raisins and dried fruit, set aflame to burn off the brandy. Sometimes it is topped with holly. According to an interview on NPR, the Christmas dessert, in addition to taking weeks to make, contains thirteen ingredients, to symbolize Christ and the apostles. The holly is to represent the crown of thorns, and the flames the passion. That’s a lot of theology to stomach. (In seminary I had friends who used food analogies for theological purposes, but I suspect they didn’t know it was such an ancient tradition.)

Christmas cheer, I would’ve been shocked to learn as a child, generally involved spirits. For example in A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens reverses his entrepreneurial relationship with Bob Crachit over a bowl of smoking bishop. I had always supposed this was a kind of soup or stew, but, again NPR comes to the rescue with a piece about Christmas drinks. Smoking bishop was made of port, and, according to the NPR story by Anne Bramley, is of the class of Protestant drinks called “ecclesiastics.” These were various alcoholic drinks named after Catholic church offices that Protestants used to poke fun at the ecclesiastical hierarchy of the Catholic tradition.

Christmas

A Christmas Tree primer

It is difficult to conceive of anything more basic than food and drink. All living things require nourishment. It stands to reason that when religious sensibilities began to appear that they would certainly be associated with the necessities of life. Holidays, as necessary breaks from the mundane, offer opportunities for bringing theology to the table. The most basic of ingredients, as any observer of biblical holidays knows, can contain more than just nutrients and roughage. There is a symbolism in what we eat. In these days when it is fashionable to declare religion nothing but stuff and nonsense, it can’t hurt to stop and look at what might be on our plate or in our cup before declaring it to be mere animal nourishment.

Christmas Music

While reading about holidays recently, I came across the idea of Christmas as a cultural holiday as well as a religious holiday. Now that it’s here, it feels like a little of both. My wife grew up in a musical family and Christmas music was a large part of her experience of the holiday. Although I grew up in a family where the religious aspect of the holiday was as preeminent as it could be with young boys, I don’t recall music being much a part of it. Perhaps we had enough of Christmas carols in church and on every shopping excursion. I don’t recall having a record player beyond maybe a close-and-play for our few 45’s. Now a large part of our holiday experience is the music. We listen to contemporary secular and classical religious and, to borrow an expression from popular parlance, it’s all good. Music spans the sacred and secular and suggests that we might all get along if only we were willing to try.

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Scanning our shelves we have a wide variety of Christmas music. It begins with Medieval carols and spans to a Very Metal Christmas and the most recent Pentatonix album. Even Amy Grant has a place in there from my college days. Like a kid I awake early on Christmas, from the long habit of getting up around 3:30. The house is quiet and, rare for New Jersey even the street outside is silent. In the hush I can still hear a kind of music. The music of peace, of a dream, of an ardent hope, of Christmas.

Christmas is all about sharing. We know Jesus of Nazareth was unlikely born this time of year, but we take it as a symbol. The peace of a silent night is best enjoyed in mixed company. With the political rancor of exclusion burning in our ears other days of the year, maybe we could think about sharing today. Sharing our land. Sharing our sense of hope. Sharing our music. The world could be such a wonderful place if we would only listen for Christmas.