Long Revision

Cecil_Rhodes_wwThose of us who write know all about revising. You go back to a piece you wrote, maybe even just days ago, and you see all the things you want to change. Corrections, improvements, deletions, retractions. Histories are particularly prone to being viewed in new ways with the passing of time. I once thought histories were factually true, but in this postmodern age we’ve learned that while histories contain some facts, they are largely interpretations of those facts. Even the Gospels are interpretations. Recently I’ve been reading about student movements wanting to efface some facts of history because they make current-day people feel bad. A piece in The Guardian, for example, explains how some students want to remove the statue of Cecil Rhodes from Oriel College, Oxford, because Rhodes was an imperialist and a racist. A similar movement is afoot at Princeton University to give Woodrow Wilson the old Akhenaton treatment for similar reasons. Student interest groups, as The Guardian points out, don’t want to be reminded of their once marginal status. Removing Rhodes (or Wilson) from his pedestal, however, won’t change history.

I wonder if those in these special interest groups have enough experience to realize the implications of their complaints. What if, for the sake of argument, one of these student leaders became a national leader? What if her (or his) nation became oppressive during her or his lifetime but s/he didn’t see it because it was the operating milieu of the age? And what if their nation later repented and brought those from their former oppressed colonies to their homeland and those who came turned against that past leader? The point of this scenario is to suggest that none of us—or at least very few of us—have the ability to think beyond our age. Can we be blamed for being children of our time? Will removing our mementos change the facts of history that will have transpired? Will it make us feel better to bury the truth of what happened?

What's behind that self-satisfied smile, Akhenaten?

What’s behind that self-satisfied smile, Akhenaten?

An issue that often weighs upon my mind when I hear of these groups of the marginalized is that there is a very large, and very diverse marginalized class that has no voice, even today. The poor. Sure, some of us raised in poverty can claw our way to a descent living, but succeeding in a world where you need connections and favors owed and special knowledge of how a system works will be forever beyond our grasp. I knew a refugee, once upon a time, who was a student of mine. He used to complain to me of the costs of having his shirts sent out to be laundered. His clothes were tailor made. He refused to use a washing machine. He was also quick to point out that I was the oppressive race. This he did without a nanogram of irony. Cecil Rhodes may have been as evil as some say he was. His money, however, made it possible for some of the heirs to his oppression to study in his shadow. And I write that with a heavy dose of irony. Do they not realize that Akhenaton is now considered by many to be the most interesting Pharaoh of them all because he was erased from history?

Monstrous Intentions

Atlas Obscura is one of those websites where you could spend all day and feel like you’ve just traveled the world. Featuring less know locations, and strange spots that you might like to visit, sometimes it also has stories about monsters. Well, at least one story about monsters. A friend of mine recently shared Cara Giaimo’s story about thirteen lesser-known monsters from history. While none of these are likely to keep you up at night, they do demonstrate the endless imagination people devote to the unknown. Monsters, like religion, defy easy categorization. Is something that’s “too big” or “too small” for its type a monster? Is it a monster if it is a mix of things that don’t normally come together? Or is it merely a matter of baleful intention? What doth a monster make?

Taking a page (almost literally) from John Ashton’s Curious Creatures in Zoology, the Atlas Obscura page runs down some monsters once believed to have existed. Some of them, despite our flattened world seen only through the eyes of rationality, were actually reported to have existed. The “monster” of Ravenna, for example, was apparently a sad case of a medieval/early modern birth defect that, in the popular imagination took on monstrosity. We now know that birth defects may contain throwbacks to earlier stages of evolution, or that genetic coding may contain mutations. None of this suggests any evil intention on the part of anybody. Accidents of nature may be the saddest kind of monster of all.

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A surprising number of the monsters from Ashton’s sampler here are mixes between human and animal. Indeed, that mix is still a potent force, theologically. One of the loudest voices speaking out against evolution is the one that says people are “not animals.” Having grown up with that belief, it took a couple years of college to convince me that we fit into the greater biological scheme of things. We fear that which resembles us, but is not quite us. Perhaps part of the mystique is that we haven’t quite yet learned to be humane to one another. Being a monster may just have more to do with what one does with prejudices than it does with physical features of their bodies.

When Gospels Mattered

SoskiceOnce I met with a group of writers and intellectuals in the Pacific northwest to discuss ancient—indeed, dead—languages and their cultures. I’d never before been accorded “rock star” status for what, for me, seemed a natural progression. I had spent my youth learning archaic languages and reading documents that few people had heard about and even fewer cared about. It was a delight, therefore, to read Janet Soskice’s The Sisters of Sinai: How Two Lady Adventurers Discovered the Hidden Gospels. I have to admit having never knowingly heard of Agnes and Margaret Smith, also known as Mrs. Agnes Lewis and Mrs. Margaret Gibson, nineteenth-century Scottish twins who chose to use their inheritance in finding, reading, and preserving ancient documents. To appreciate the importance of this avocation, as Soskice points out, in 1881 when a new translation of the Gospels went on sale based on recent manuscript finds, Oxford University Press sold a million copies on the first day of sale and carts carrying the Bibles caused traffic jams in London. Today a doctorate in those ancient languages and five bucks might get you a cup of coffee.

What makes this story so intriguing, admittedly, is that here were two women in a men’s world, accomplishing great scholarship when the University of Cambridge refused to grant women degrees. (The twin sisters lived in Cambridge.) It is with some sense of familiarity that I read how, after discovering and photographing the Syriac palimpsest which turned out to be perhaps the earliest complete copy of the Gospels known at the time, the sisters could not even get Cambridge professors to look at their photographs. Professors, as we all know, are too busy to bother with amateurs like the rest of us. As soon as one of the more promising Cambridge scholars almost accidentally viewed one of the pictures, the men stepped in eagerly claiming the discovery for themselves. The manuscript was in Saint Catherine’s Convent in the Sinai peninsula, a journey not easy to make, even today. Agnes had discovered the palimpsest there on a journey to discover ancient manuscripts. But she was a woman in a man’s Cambridge.

We can congratulate ourselves on many things in academia today. In many fields a woman stands a better chance than a man in landing a teaching job. But we still have far to go. Salaries for women continue to lag behind those of men for doing the same work in general. Healthcare issues that effect primarily women are decided on by legislatures that consist mostly of men. In many parts of the world, women are, by default, treated as the property of men. Two Scottish sisters managed to help upset the world, in their quiet way, at the turn of the twentieth century. They did it by acts of scholarship. Genteel, proper, and very Presbyterian. If only we could say that in the century since then we had reached equality, we might have done something of which we could truly be proud.

The Great Slumbering

Even in days of secular education—I am a product of public education throughout my childhood—Jonathan Edwards is a name that still retains recognition among many Americans. Perhaps best remembered for his sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” Edwards thrived at a time when being a clergyman was a recognized path to success in this world as well as the next. Not that all ministers became famous, of course, but those with the inclination had access to books and time to study. They could write books and influence public policy. Indeed, Edwards was part of the “Great Awakening” that spread throughout the young United States, before its independence. George Whitefield had brought a showman’s sensibility to preaching, and people gathered to listen to roving reverends who brought their wisdom to new locations. In fact, revivals continue to this day—I had attended a few as a child—and they are largely responsible for the denominational map of American Protestantism even today. The “Second Great Awakening” brought Methodists and Baptists into the mainstream to stay.

The first major revivals, however, were fueled by a Calvinistic intensity. Having spent many of my educational years in schools established or supported by Presbyterians, I know their theology well. Judgment is important in the Reformed tradition. Indeed, without the element of threat, the heat is stolen from much of revivalism. Edwards’ sermon encapsulates so well the vital element of a theology that preached total depravity, unconditional election, limited atonement, irresistible grace, and perseverance of the saints. In other words, unless God has already selected you, you’re out of options. As Presbyterian teachers were eager to state, you should still try to live as if you were saved (“elect”), even if you were going to Hell because of, well, you know, an angry God. Campus rules at Grove City embodied that ethic in a real-time way.

Jonathan Edwards went on to become president of Princeton University (the College of New Jersey, at that time). He died at about my age, having been inoculated for small pox—he was a believer in science—to demonstrate the value of the practice to students. He contracted the disease and died merely weeks later. Ironically, Edwards felt he was past his prime and had to be persuaded to take an academic job—somewhat of an extreme rarity today—and largely because his son-in-law, Aaron Burr, Sr., had recently died as the incumbent. Today, starting on the path to ministry is often a fast-track to job insecurity, popular derision, and poor earnings. For all that, it is difficult to be accepted in the ordination track without jumping through many hoops. So Jonathan Edwards came to rest in Princeton, New Jersey, as a famous, published, and highly respected man. A more different world then his in such a short time in the same location, is hard to imagine.

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Thinking about Thought

The history of thought can be compared to a slow-moving pendulum. At other times it can be more like a ping-pong game. Acceptability for ideas can take time, but sometimes the perceptions change rapidly. Having been raised in a small town in a Fundamentalist setting, it is difficult to assess where exactly the “status quo” was when I was growing up, but by the time I had reached college it was pretty clear that the challenge science posed to my particular brand of religion was pretty firmly entrenched. Materialism—in the philosophical sense—had obviously gained several champions. B. F. Skinner and his followers applied this template to human beings, and it became fairly common to hear that we were basically automatons. (Ironically, double predestination in the Calvinism I was learning about taught pretty much the same thing.) Today there are even more vocal heralds proclaiming that all that is, is material. If it can’t be measured empirically, it can’t exist. The pendulum, or ping-pong ball, has come to one side of the table, or arc, awaiting rebuttal.

An article in Scientific American from two years ago (my personal pendulum sometimes moves slowly as well) asks the question “Is Consciousness Universal?” The article by Christof Koch describes panpsychism, the theory that anything beyond a certain level of organization is conscious. Koch begins by discussing dogs. Those of us who’ve spent time with dogs know that they are clearly conscious, although a materialist would say they are just as much dumb matter as we are. But panpsychism goes beyond dogs and horses and other “higher” mammals. Anyone who has taken the time to study any animal in depth, particularly those that are obviously mobile and can seek what they wish to find, knows that animals have will, and intension. The loss of meaning only comes with materialism.

Integrated information is the term Koch uses to describe the baseline of consciousness. Of course, this would need to account for more than the merely biological. Computers may be sufficiently complex, but the information they “possess” is not integrated, thus keeping them from being truly conscious. I’m not enough of a scientist to understand all the technicalities, but I do know that something as simple as common sense suggests that consciousness is part of all animals’ experience of life. As some scientists have long realized, feeling, or emotion, is integral to the thought process. Only when we realize that we share this world with a great variety of conscious creatures will we begin to make any progress toward understanding the difference between mind and mindfulness.

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Hamilton

Religion and politics. It’s difficult to get over the wisdom instilled in your earliest years, and I was one of those who learned that religion and politics always cause potential friction in polite conversation. They are both, however, very important to people and knowing how to communicate about them irenically is a sign of maturity. While I can’t afford Broadway shows, I have read reports about the brilliance of a couple shows that feature—what else?—religion and politics. “Book of Mormon” has continued to be a success in the theater district, and, starting this summer, “Hamilton” joined the ranks of most popular Broadway shows. A hip-hop-inspired version of the story of Alexander Hamilton, the show offers history to audiences traditionally just out for a good time. I haven’t seen the show, but on a recent long car ride, I listened to the soundtrack and I have to admit that I haven’t stopped thinking about it since. Part of the reason is the sadness of the story—the dual between Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton ended up with one of the “forgotten founding fathers” dead, and another cast forever as a criminal.

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Although my interest in history has defined my career (such as it is), I don’t pretend to know much about the revolutionary period. One of the reasons is that I’m more than a bit ashamed by the treatment of American Indians by the colonials. It is hard to celebrate when you feel like a criminal yourself. Another reason has been that ancient history has always captivated me, and events two-to-two-and-a-half centuries ago feel too recent. Nevertheless, I find myself in New Jersey where much of the Revolution played out: Washington crossing the Delaware, the Battle of Princeton, the Battle of Monmouth, and many other famous episodes. The British of that time enjoyed the power of empire—keeping others down so that the privileged might see themselves entitled. In the musical, King George has a role, in my mind, similar to Pontus Pilate in Jesus Christ Superstar.

I can’t help but think that what Lin-Manuel Miranda has offered in “Hamilton” is an extended kind of parable. The show is noted for its multi-ethnic cast in a story that was almost entirely, historically speaking, one of white privilege. Who can hear the songs swirling around the shooting of Hamilton and not think of the equally insane shooting of young African Americans who, like Hamilton, have no intention of causing harm? There are writers and poets and lovers who still try to find their place in a country that bathes the uber-rich with adoration and tax breaks and far too much power. “Hamilton” may, if people actually pay attention, turn out to be revolutionary. Politics and religion share that feature in common.

Illusions

While out driving one winter evening, the sun was setting below a distant horizon that I couldn’t see. Trees lined the sides of the road and, while creating not exactly a tunnel, they blocked the actual view of the orb itself. The day had been partly sunny with cloud forms shifting between layers of the atmosphere. Even though I had studied weather pretty intensely for a number of years, I couldn’t readily identify the cloud types. Thin, smooth lengths of cloud seemed to be suddenly rising up into cumulus banks, heavy with snow. Not far away, the sky was clear. As the sun was going down, these dramatic clouds were lit with the colors of fire: yellows, oranges, and reds. Further to the west, a high, broken bank of clouds glowed a rosy red against a twilight sky. Since the highway we were on was straight, I had a fairly consistent view of the warm tones of the sun highlighting the impressive clouds. My camera couldn’t hope to catch the intensity of the palette revealed to my eyes. When the sun finally fell beyond the range of the clouds, they appeared gray and prosaic against a darkening sky. They had been alight only moments ago, and now they were dull, and not even white.

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What I’d learned of physics reminded me that even these colors were not inherent to the clouds—colors are simply reflections of light rays and the range that we see depends on our eyes. An object’s color, in other words, is a kind of illusion. It’s an illusion we share, and although some people are color-blind, we make the conventions of color part of everyday life. Red means stop, and green mean go, for example. Objective reality is simply the fact that objects reflect different wavelengths of color. Depending on the light source, they appear a specific color to us. While we take colors for granted, they are actually a way of conveying meaning that isn’t entirely real.

Ancient people looking at the colors in the sky could only understand them as caused by the activity of the gods. Bright hues in the clouds suddenly diminished to gray could be the basis for a myth of heavenly conflict. A rainbow, according to Genesis, is a sign that such a conflict is finally over. I don’t know what the gods might have been doing overhead that night, but as the sun disappeared and a full moon rose, throwing soft, but pervasive light from the broken clouds that have only moments before had appeared red, another reality seemed to be taking over. I suspect that we have lost much by no longer watching the sky. My daily work generally involves sitting in a windowless room, and in Midtown the sky is occluded with human attempts to climb to heaven. When I can see the sky for an extended period of time, it seems that the gods are putting on a show, if only we’d watch.

Silent Light

One of the first things I notice during and after a snowstorm is the silence. Part of it, I suspect, is the dampening effect the blanket of snow has on ambient sounds, but another part of it is the lack of usual frenetic human activity. Here in New Jersey it often feels like being in a perpetual motion machine. People are always going some place. Movement is constant and even if I have to head to the airport at 3 a.m. there is other traffic on the road. We are all too busy. Snow has the power to make one stop and reflect.

We live on a fairly busy street since we’re just a couple blocks from the county hospital. Further along our street in the other direction are the county jail and social services offices. People are going by constantly. When yesterday’s snow began, the traffic died down. For once people seemed to take forecasters seriously—driving would be dangerous, and the snow would keep coming well into the night. By mid-afternoon we had more snow in my town that I’d ever seen at a single time during my decade in New Jersey. It was as if winter came in a single day. But it was quiet. Very occasionally a snow plow would rumble by, but most of the day our busy street was deserted. A few kids ventured out, but not many since this was a blizzard (the definition of which is that wind is strong enough to lift snow off the ground and make it airborne again). The silence was almost disorienting. It was like living at Nashotah House once again.

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Silence has long been understood to be a spiritual virtue. Both eastern and western religious traditions recognize the value of listening. The noise may be internal or external, but it is nearly constant. Taking time to try to shut it out, if only for a few minutes a day, can be a spiritual exercise. A snowstorm can help to quiet the constant reminders that we have to do this or that, or that we have to be here or there. During a snowstorm we only have to be where we are, and we only have to do what we’re doing. Soon enough the roads will be cleared and the traffic will begin again. Until it does, however, it is worth exploring what the silence has to offer.

Storm Watch

Nothing encourages sleeping in like a blizzard. Although it’s a talent I’ve largely lost over the years, hearing the bellows of the wind and seeing the white reflecting through the blinds, and being a Saturday morning form the perfect recipe for letting my brain relax enough to fall back asleep after I’ve awoken. It’s a guilty pleasure that I had, quite honestly, nearly forgotten. Unlike several winter storms predicted last year, this one has actually come to pass. Prediction of the future may be one of those “God-of-the-gap” things, but meteorologists are modern-day prophets. In a society driven by work uniformity, days off are unwelcome, so a weekend blizzard might just seem to come from God. The highly anticipated list of school closings simply doesn’t apply. Many businesses still recognize the sanctity of the weekend, and we can just roll over and go back to sleep.

In ancient times the weather was anything but natural. The sky—so large and so far away—was purely the realm of the divine. The only way to impact it from down here was to pray and sacrifice and hope that it would behave. Getting back to that view of the world is nearly impossible here in the twenty-first century. We are so accustomed to natural causation that it is just one of those “butterfly effect” things. In truth, though, we know that human activity also has to share some blame with the butterfly.

Winter storms in January are not uncommon in the northern hemisphere, of course. January hurricanes, however, are. And as political rhetoric heats up and we once again ponder what it would be like to have another clown in the White House, global warming is dismissed as just another bad joke. As a nation we’ve been enamored of those who can provide the most entertaining gaffs and still claim they know enough to lead the nation. I have a hard time believing those who voted for Reagan had any success at separating fiction from fact. I still can’t convince myself that W was legitimately elected. The second term of both of these actors freezes me as much as the chill draft making its way through my apartment. The meteorologists nailed this one with their predictions. I’ll stay inside and huddle under my blankets until the all clear. And that may not be until well after November.

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Swamped

The word “venerable” is often applied with the connotation of age. Although the word in its own right really means to “adore,” or “worship,” objects of extreme age evoke that response. Perhaps the fact that “time-honored” is used as a synonym helps create that impression. As human beings, many of us experience an awe at being in the presence of something much older than ourselves. When I read about the Great Swamp Oak, then, I knew I would eventually need to see it. Reliable indications of a living tree’s age are difficult to assess for a non-botanist. Websites don’t give much thought to checking out the oldest tree in the state (although I did discover The NJ Big Tree Registry), but there are those who give that honor to the white oak of Basking Ridge, not far from the Great Swamp Oak. Others seem to indicate that the swamp denizen is older—somewhere in the range of 700 years. In the state of New Jersey, where things are constantly being reinvented and reconstructed, it is a source of comfort to find something so old leaving peacefully in a swamp.

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Now that I’ve used the words “tree” and “worship” together, I am inevitably brought back to the conceit of Asherah. As my academic writings have adequately demonstrated, I have doubts about the goddess’s association with trees. Nevertheless, there is something venerable about an ancient tree. If the Great Swamp Oak is 700 years old, it was already alive well before the “Age of Exploration” began. The only people to know of it, when there was as yet nothing to know, were First Nations inhabitants of the region. It was a time when, to American Indians, Europe did not even exist. Meanwhile across the ocean the plague could have been raging. A century or two later, Europeans would bring their plagues to these shores, forever changing the landscape. And not in a good way.

Trees, without human interference, can have tremendous life spans. In our short-sighted way, however, we have often understood them as nuisances in the way of some great shopping mall or industrial site. The “lungs of the planet,” trees have been wantonly destroyed in the name of progress. It is amazing that, especially on the East Coast, a few of them managed to avoid the axe and saw. Looking up into the branches of this great oak, I marvel at the changes that have taken place that, in its own way, this tree has “seen.” The world outside this swamp would be completely unrecognizable. Whether an asherah or not, I find myself reacting to the venerable nature of this sentinel of the ages. If only we could learn to keep our hands off young trees that nature plants, who knows what wonders future generations might experience in places even more unlikely than a swamp.

Quaker Way

QuakerWayDoctrine can be an immense stumbling block. As a person who’s been involved with many churches in my life, the virtue of virtues often seems to be sacrificed on the altar of doctrine. If you don’t believe X, you’re not one of us. It was a great delight, therefore, to read Philip Gulley’s Living the Quaker Way. Having grown up in Pennsylvania, you might think I’d know a great deal about Quakers. I never met any, however, when I lived in the state. And I really didn’t know much about their beliefs. I knew they called themselves Friends, and I knew “Quaker” was originally a derogatory title, like “Methodist,” “Jesuit,” or the near homonym, “Shaker,” later reappropriated as a name for the group. I also knew that numerically they were on the smaller end of the religious demographic. Reading Gulley’s insightful little book was an epiphany.

I learned of Calvinism at a Presbyterian College. There I was taught TULIP: Total depravity, Unconditional election, Limited atonement, Irresistible grace, and Perseverance of the saints, the first three of which struck me as dangerous and unholy. What a beaming of light to read instead of SPICE: Simplicity, Peace, Integrity, Community, and Equality. This acronym is Gulley’s shorthand for what defines the Religious Society of Friends. Doctrine is nowhere on the list. A deity who creates people just to throw them into Hell is also missing. As is Transubstantiation. And religious violence in the name of spiritual purity. There is an awful lot to be learned from the simple message of people who understand that they are people and every other person is too. Gulley is not naive; he knows Quakers aren’t perfect. What he does show, however, is that those who are willing to relinquish self-assured self-righteousness make far better neighbors who resemble what Jesus taught than do many who would rather destroy the livelihoods of those with whom they disagree.

The beauty of what this book describes is that one need not be a Quaker to live this way. Not being doctrinal, a Quaker wouldn’t insist on that and still be true to the ideals of the Friends. If we could learn to want less, to get along with those with whom we disagree, be honest, welcome others, and treat all people as if they had a bit of God inside them the world would be a better place. There can be no doubt about that. One might say, “that’s just common sense.” I would guess that most Quakers would agree. Religion, freed from platitudes, could be a viable and valuable way of being in the world.

What You Pay For

VampireHunterWhen a friend pointed out the easily missed 2001 film, Jesus Christ Vampire Hunter, (well before Seth Grahame-Smith came up with the same role for Abraham Lincoln) I knew I was duty-bound to see it. As regular readers know, although I’m not a fan of gore or violence, I have a soft spot for vampire movies. Vampires, although often evil, are frequently presented as conflicted characters. As former humans they have some level of sympathy for their victims, while at the same time, all people are objectified for the vampire. We are food. This low-budget, independent film didn’t promise to deliver on many levels, but as the end credits show, they did shoot enough film to be able to cut out a few bloopers. The story, in as far as there is one, has Jesus fighting lesbian vampires in modern-day Ottawa (where the film was shot).

Not that the film was serious enough to invite critical dialogue, I did wonder what Jesus had to do with the whole thing apart from the shock value. There were a few cute moments, as when the “atheists” pile, clown-like, out of a car for an extended fight scene, but the lead could have been any character apart from one scene where a miracle does occur. Jesus fights with his fists, not with supernatural power. Tossing in Mary Magnum and “professional wrestler” El Santo, the movie came close to the screwball level of Attack of the Killer Tomatoes. It’s difficult to critique a film where logic isn’t held accountable for the plot—the only thing to keep the film going is the action of a particular scene. And that, as I’ve intimated, can’t be counted on.

Interestingly enough, Jesus is treated throughout the film in a positive way. Although he doesn’t use supernatural powers, he is the “good guy” and is even tolerant of alternative lifestyles as long as love is the basis of relationships. The movie is biblically literate, using the Good Samaritan in a scene that underscores the accepting nature of the new millennium Jesus. The vampires don’t add much to the lore of the monster. They can be out in daylight because it is cheaper to shoot film that way, but the plot does come up with an explanation for it. Vampirism, at the end, can be healed by prayer, and when Mary Magnum, El Santo, and Jesus go their separate ways at the end, we are left wondering what all the fuss was about.

Free Words

Just over a couple of centuries ago on this date, Edgar Allan Poe was born. That auspicious moment is an inspiration for those of us who write, and not just those of us who like scary stories. Poe was one of the first Americans to try to support himself by his writing—an occupation that has remained difficult to replicate and attain, even centuries later. There had, of course, been earlier writers. Mostly they wrote as an avocation to their jobs or they had family wealth, but Poe knew his own talents well enough to believe that writing was his occupation. He still stands out as an icon to those who are hopefully of making some kind of mark in the literary world. The surface is, however, much harder than we anticipate. It is like diamond, which may be marked only by another diamond. It is worth stopping to think of literature today.

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Over the long weekend, celebrating the human spirit in the person of Martin Luther King, Jr., I decided to read William Shakespeare’s King Lear. Probably not the source of as many famous quotes as some of the Bard’s other plays, it was nevertheless fitting as a tribute to writing. King Lear is sometimes cast as Shakespeare’s most thoroughly tragic works. The mood of misfortune hangs over the entire play. And although Lear is likely a fiction from the mind of Geoffrey of Monmouth or his sources, his name recounts the Celtic god of the sea, Llyr. Historians and grammarians tell us that Lear is not directly derived from the god’s name, nevertheless, there is a divine madness about the drama that unfolds as love and power vie for control in ages long past. In the present day the tragedy is that love seems no longer to be part of the equation and raw power is left to mark those who would be kings.

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The holiday weekend afforded the opportunity to visit a local bookstore and to ask the owners what to read. It would give Poe, I’m sure, some hope to know that despite the difficulties there are those who still strive to live by their words. Indeed, it is difficult to conceive of a better way of celebrating freedom than to indulge oneself with the written word. Words lead to liberty. Although Poe’s life was short, and often tragic, Martin Luther King, Jr. lived to about the same age, and through his often tragic life, changed the world with his words. In this day of money hunger and electronic stimulation, it is good to set aside some time to reflect on the words that have made us who we are. Words are our ultimate freedom.

Monk over Matter

ManWhoCouldFlyPeople can think with their emotions. At a young age we begin formal schooling to teach us the rational ways that we must develop to live in society. Emotions are trained, tamed, and sometimes repressed as we are taught that “higher brain” functions are what make us distinctly human. Even in our supremely rational world, however, we can’t figure out consciousness. It remains elusive, provocatively bordering on the supernatural, and the experience of being human gives the lie to consciousness being emergent from a physical brain. These are the kinds of issues that underlie the strange case of Joseph of Copertino. The subject of Michael Grosso’s recent book, The Man Who Could Fly: St. Joseph of Copertino and the Mystery of Levitation, Joseph may well be off the radar of most people. In fact, in the seventeenth century church in Italy, his presence was downplayed and hushed, almost as an embarrassment to Roman Catholicism of the day. Why? Joseph was known to levitate. In fact, his levitations were often in public and were witnessed by individuals whose credibility was not in doubt. With the Reformation going on, however, the last thing the church needed was a miracle.

The standard historical line of dealing with Joseph is to laugh and wave our hands in the directions of those credulous early moderns. They thought they saw him levitate, but it was all imagination. Even if we have to invoke mass hallucination. People just can’t levitate. Grosso’s book, however, takes a different approach to Joseph. Looking at first-hand accounts, carefully considering the political situation of seventeenth-century Italy, and being open to parapsychology, this book presents a very different portrait of the flying saint. There was nothing to be gained by hiding such a prodigy unless, as Grosso argues, there was actually something to the story. It may come down to a basic misunderstanding of consciousness, his book suggests.

No doubt The Man Who Could Fly will be simply dismissed by many. Those who dare to read it, however, will find a cogently argued, rational exploration of a man who was lifted by spiritual ecstasies in a way we have yet to understand. Grosso demonstrates that, depending on perspective, such events do not violate laws of physics so much as demonstrate that we have much yet to learn about them. Categorizing events as supernatural puts up an artificial barrier to exploring scientifically events that have evidence in the form of multiple witnesses. Obviously we can’t go back to the 1600’s and visit Joseph in some obscure convent where he’d been shuffled by church authorities to keep him out of the public eye. Even if we could there would be no way to prove his extraordinary gifts. When it comes to the life of emotion, the only way to accept the impossible is with belief. And at times belief may be the most rational response at hand.

Head of STEAM

The market producing doctorates in the humanities is showing no signs of slowing down. The fact is we’re all human, and many of us aren’t very technically inclined, unless we have to be. There are fewer and fewer jobs for these bright students who graduate with doctorates in the humanities, but the plight of the “privileged” is no concern to wider society. Let the eggheads figure it out. At the same time, wisdom in the job market is that careers in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM subjects) are growing and showing the most promise for future careers. The pace of technological change is so rapid that yes, obsolescence for new devices is six months or less. My iPhone 4 is a dinosaur, although when I first held it some three years ago it was so advanced that I was afraid of it. A moment’s reflection will reveal that the most advanced technology is already in use in the military since staying ahead of the enemy is always the bottom line.

This situation has led to some concern, and not just among those of us in the humanities. Some in the world of STEM are saying that quality of life suffers. To indulge a stereotype, try to imagine geeks without Star Trek. We know that Star Trek was as much fantasy as science fiction. My iPhone makes a communicator look just plain silly. Star Trek is, however, creative indulgence. While many would hesitate to raise it to the status of “art” it is part of the Arts: fine arts, literature, film, music, and some television. The stories it tells are the stories of human beings (and one alien) struggling against often more advanced civilizations. In the end, humanity always wins. If we exit the stereotype, scientists are often musicians and writers as well. Some become novelists or consultants on box-office busters. We are more than meat machines.

Recently voices have been heard suggesting that STEM should be STEAM. The Arts have an integral role to play in the scientific and technological fields. Even some numbers are imaginary. The basis for developing imagination is the Arts. Although we could have made it to this point in our development without Star Trek, the fact is that many of us growing up with it, as well as the more silly, but also influential Lost in Space, and what we now know is a most assured cash cow, Star Wars, know that these shows helped shaped the present we inhabit. Arts give us visions. There continue to be those who castigate the Arts as “soft” and “weak” and tangential to the cold hard facts. But they are wrong. Humans can’t survive without a source of warmth and energy. And the first great engines of advancing civilization still have much to teach us, for those engines ran on steam.