Dream Time

DreamingLike most people, I seldom remember my dreams. When I do, or when only the powerful feeling remains, I know that they are very emotional events. Something is always going on, and my attention is riveted. I recently read J. Allan Hobson’s Dreaming: An Introduction to the Science of Sleep. It must be intimidating, I have to note right away, for a neuroscientist to write a book. Our understanding is changing so rapidly that even academic treatments become a kind of ephemera. Published over a decade ago, it shows its age. Even I’m aware that changes in brain science have occurred and perceptions have changed somewhat since then. What struck me most, however, is Hobson’s absolute confidence that mind is a function of the brain, and that dreams are merely the madness we experience when we sleep. The madness I don’t mind so much. The materialism, however, I think is largely wrong.

Consciousness remains a great unknown. There is disagreement around whether it is emergent—coming from the brain, or receptive—perceived by the brain. Or perhaps something completely different. One of the greatest human foibles is to claim that we understand anything completely. I’ve always been amazed—knowing that the world involves much more than just sight, sound, scent, taste, and touch—that some scientists are so quick to write off complex experience as “merely” activity in the brain. Some animals, for example, seem to perceive magnetic fields. Others use navigation devices we simply don’t comprehend. They may experience senses we don’t even have. And yet, we happily claim that we’ve gotten this one nailed down. Dreams are only activities in the brain when we sleep.

Only? How can any dreamer say that this is only chemical reaction in our heads? The experience of dreaming is, implicitly, so much more than just random thoughts. Hobson does a good job describing how dreams are a form of madness, a psychosis when the reasoning part of our brains are inhibited. Fair enough, but who can experience madness and think it completely material? Our minds are more complex, it seems to me, than we give them credit for being. Hobson begins the book by noting that dreams used to be within the purview of religion. Since has now claimed them. We have an entire universe in our skulls, and yet we insist that although we don’t understand it, we can be certain that it is nothing but material. My dreams continue to suggest a different reality.

Used Bookends

There’s nothing like spending a Saturday in a bookstore. It is actually a rare treat these days with Borders gone and some of the smaller indies having trouble keeping up. I particularly like used bookstores. Unlike most durable goods, books—at least some of them—grow in character with renewed ownership. Like most academics, I have books that had previously been owned by big names in the field. Sometimes because I was a student of one of their students, at other times because their library went for sale and I found the tome in a second-hand shop. A few years back I had to go to Boston for work, and I stopped at the Boston Book Annex only to find it closed. It’s sad when even a used bookstore can’t keep up.

So when my wife told me she had to work on Saturday, and it was in Montclair, my thoughts turned to the Montclair Book Center. It isn’t the largest bookstore around, but it does have used books and it is a healthy walk from my wife’s office. I never go planning to spend much, but being in a bookstore, you see things you didn’t know existed. When the staff comes up to ask if they can help me find anything I just smile and say, “No thanks, I just want to browse.” Maybe it’s because I have no idea what I’m looking for. I’ll know it when I see it.

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I used to visit the Cranbury Bookworm. In a sprawling old house outside Princeton, I often found pleasant, used surprises there. Then the landlord evicted them. They sold off most of their stock and moved to a closet down the street. Even though it’s tiny, there are always others there. I’m never alone in a bookstore. Other patrons feel the draw. I wonder if everyone who reads doesn’t owe a debt of obligation to stop into their local bookstore and pitch in. I grew up in a town without any bookstores at all. The nearest one I knew of was thirty miles away. I know what it is to be book-deprived. It’s Saturday, and a little too cold to spend much time outdoors. It’s probably just an excuse, but you’ll find me in the bookstore nevertheless.

Camera Obscura

There’s a certain etiquette to being on the bus. There has to be, when you pack fifty strangers together for an hour and shake gently. The seats on New Jersey Transit are somewhat intimate and it’s rare to make it through the journey without somehow touching the person next to you—elbows, knees, hips, or general body mass—worlds collide. I’ve mentioned before that not many people read old-fashioned books on the bus, but one of those unspoken rules of etiquette is that you don’t look at a stranger’s book. I’ve benefitted from that any number of times myself. People think odd things about you when you’re reading a book about religion in a public space. Not odd enough thoughts to earn you a seat alone, but still.

I was reading a book about an ancient Near Eastern religion the other day. For me it’s an occupational hazard. Those of us who have studied this stuff for a living keep on cranking out the books and somebody has to read them. Amid all the blue light from all the devices I often feel like I should be in a museum myself. It was with great surprise then, that my eye wandered onto the book next to me that day. I really couldn’t help it, you see. The woman who sat next to me and was using her cell phone to shed light on her book (the overhead lights don’t always work). She went to make a phone call but forgot to turn off the light so that it hit me right in the eye. Realizing her faux pas, she quickly turned it off, but my attention had been caught. In the book in front of her was a picture of the Narmer Palette. Narmer was the king who united ancient Egypt, according to the lore, and this stone ornament was the commemoration of his achievement. Anyone who’s studied ancient Near Eastern history would instantly recognize it. What were the chances? Two people sitting on a bus, reading actual books, both about the ancient Near East?

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Bus etiquette, as I understand it, doesn’t allow me to ask a stranger, “What’re you reading?” It’s kind of a personal question, really. I’ve been doing this commute for going on five years now. The number of books next to me has been negligible. But one related to the very topic I was reading about? Was this one of those “if you see something, say something” things? Instead I practiced custody of the eyes and went back to my own book. Then the other unthinkable: she talked to me. “Do you know where,” she began—“ancient Egypt!” I thought. But then she asked where a certain restaurant was. I apologized. I never pay attention to the businesses along the highway. I’ve always got a book to read. I thought about asking her about the book. She had, after all, breeched the dam of silence. Instead I turned back to my own book and didn’t notice when the bus reached a restaurant whose name I didn’t even know. That’s what etiquette demands.

Religious Monsters

Some colleagues and I are working to meet a deadline. I suppose I use the word “colleague” rather grandly, since they both have teaching positions, nevertheless, we have a common goal. We are fascinated by monsters and we’d like to see the American Academy of Religion dedicate a small section of its large annual meeting to them. We’d do all the work. At first glance, this might seem an odd topic for the serious study of religion. The fact is, however, that monsters are a part of human experience—at least in our imagination—and the conceptual space overlaps considerably with religion. Many monsters have their origins in religious thought. Some theorists go further than that and suggest the very concept of “monsters” comes to us, courtesy of religious beliefs. We can see it time and again in popular culture; the movie or television show, or novel that features monsters ventures into the territory of religion.

The reason for suggesting that this relationship be formalized is the fact that, although this connection exists, it has not be given adequate study. Monsters are the denizens of childhood imagination. When we grow up we leave our monsters behind. But not really. We just stop talking about them. With our mouths. The film industry knows that a horror film will generally draw in the lucre. Halloween has become a major commercial holiday. Stephen King is a household name. I’m not sure why all of this is so, but I think it might have something to do with repression. When we grow up we are taught there’s no such thing as monsters. Those who refuse to relinquish those beliefs are ridiculed. We have more important things to do. Things like making money. Deep down, however, we may still believe.

The fantastic and belief are intimate companions. In fact, belief is at the root of much of our experience. That’s not to say there are really monsters in the night, but at some level we believe there are. And we also believe that infinite deities control this infinite universe that may be only one of many multiverses. It just seems likely. Evidence may point in the other direction. Empirical proof is lacking. And yet, we believe. I’ve discovered a number of colleagues over the years who share this academic fascination with monsters and religion. I don’t know if we’ll be approved by the powers that be, but at least we will have begun to raise the question. What lurks behind it is a matter of belief.

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Under the Weather

A friend, knowing my penchant to watch the skies, sent me a story about the British and the weather. The story by Alastair Sooke on the BBC’s cultural page is discussing Alexandra Harris’s book Weatherland. I have to admit that I haven’t read the book (yet) but the report of it appeals to someone who’s written a book on the weather, but for a much older timeframe. According to Harris, according to Sooke, the British are rumored to be obsessed with the weather. While living in the United Kingdom, my wife and I observed this. It is not merely casual conversation when someone discusses the weather. It is a serious topic. For a nation so accustomed to rain and gloomy skies, the weather has a religious import. It rarely goes without comment. I suppose that’s the point I was trying to make in my book. The weather is important. Vital, in fact, to human survival.

What really caught my attention here, however, was Harris’s observation that weather is used to characterize mood. Sooke mentions ice and snow and melancholy. The image is vivid: early Anglo-Saxons turing a wary eye to a winter sky with its low clouds and preternatural chill. It is so universal, it seems, not to require comment. Yet at the same time, weather can be a great trickster. C. S. Lewis once wrote that the image of the Arctic north filled him with an inexplicable joy. Winter can be fickle that way. In the world of the Psalmists, rain was a blessing and a weapon. How you look at it depends, well, on your mood.

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The British may take their weather more seriously, on a day-to-day basis, than those of us across the Atlantic. We tend to treat the topic casually. In reality, it is just as serious here. Drought, which has gripped the western half of the country for about half a century now, is a serious concern. Winter storms, hurricanes, tornadoes. A lightning storm can still be a theophany. (One awoke me in the middle of the night, just hours ago.) Weather impacts our bodies as well as our moods. It is all-pervasive, but we generally don’t like to articulate it. I suspect our understanding of the weather says more about us than we’re willing to admit. Our British colleagues, however, are less squeamish about the topic than we tend to be. There’s more to the sky than it might appear.

Super Reality

Super NaturalReality is not often, if ever, what it appears to be. As creatures that evolved to survive in this particular environment, we have passed along and received the skills that make this possible. One of those skills is filtering. We filter out most of the stimuli that surround us daily (and nightly), and that with only five senses. We don’t experience reality as it is. It is with this in mind that I read The Super Natural by Whitley Strieber and Jeffrey Kripal. Perhaps unlike many who will read this book, my attraction was based on Jeffrey Kripal’s involvement. In anticipation, late last year I read Whitley Strieber’s Communion, but I have great respect for Jeffrey Kripal’s work, and consider anything he writes well worth the reading. This book, then, is a strange hybrid between the experiencer and the open-minded analyst who brings the toolbox of religious studies to what most academics dismiss as “the paranormal.”

This is one of those books that will distort perceptions of reality. That’s not because Strieber and Kripal simply accept each other’s versions of events or conclusions. They don’t. Both are free to disagree with one another. Kripal, as a recognized academic, brings something rare to the table. He is willing to listen to people who have experienced what standard approaches wipe away as “merely anecdotal.” Ask yourself: what do we have to say that isn’t anecdotal? We don’t experience all of reality, and the filters we use go both ways—what we perceive is filtered, and what we share with others is filtered. As much as a materialist may hate to admit it, she or he still has feelings. And our senses, keep in mind, can be fooled. We’ve all seen mirages or thought we heard something that nobody said. Our brains evolved with lots of false positives. Who are we to judge that someone else’s anecdote is impossible? That’s what super nature can do to you.

It is also refreshing to see that, although the day when a physicist’s name as a household word may have passed (excluding Sheldon Cooper, of course), those who remain recognizable from the past—Niels Bohr, Werner Heisenberg, Wolfgang Pauli, Erwin Schrödinger—were not strict materialists. As The Super Natural points out, these foundational figures of quantum physics all turned to mysticism of some sort or another to help them come to grips with what the empirical evidence was showing. I do wonder how we’ve come, since then, to have so many brilliant people who have lost a sense of wonder about the anomalies that exist in everyday experience. Who hasn’t felt a shiver of pleasure at a particularly poignant coincidence or glitch in the matrix? Maybe most of us will never have as many uncanny experiences as Whitley Strieber, but we might be losing something valuable if we don’t at least listen to what he, and others like him, have to say.

Presidential Race

RooseveltsMy wife and I have been working our way through Ken Burns’ documentary, The Roosevelts. At first, it took a little persuading on my wife’s part. Of course I thought Teddy Roosevelt was an interesting character, and FDR may have been the last true Democrat to inhabit the Oval Office, but they were a rich family. American aristocrats. I’m glad she convinced me. Subtitled “An Intimate Portrait,” the fourteen-hour mini-series doesn’t idealize the three most famous Roosevelts (Eleanor is included too); they have their faults and foibles. One thing, however, has won me over time and again—these three genuinely cared for other people. Sure, there was ambition and fame involved, but their personal writings reveal that they believed it was the obligation of the wealthy to give back to society. Industry bosses hated them.

More than once I’ve found tears in my eyes as the narrative unfolds that includes people writing personal letters of praise, petition, and always hope, to a president whose New Deal was intended to ensure that as many people could be helped were. I keep thinking to myself—when is the last time we had a president who really cared about the people? I voted for Carter, Clinton, and Obama. I think they did, and are doing, okay. Of the three I saw Carter building houses for the homeless after his administration. I have seen Obama fighting back emotion at the senseless shooting of black youths by police. I think they care about people. Franklin Roosevelt, even after an assassination attempt, however, rode in open-topped cars. He drove on his own to talk to people and ask them how they were. He was a president who cared. Our presidents are now behind bulletproof glass.

Politics has a disenchantment in its wings. It has become a game the wealthy play. Even the most well-meaning Democrat has no hope against the wealthiest one-tenth of one-percent who hold all the power in their hands. Watching The Roosevelts it’s clear that it has been so since industrialization. Seeing the J. P. Morgans and even the less enlightened Roosevelts declaring politics had no business stopping their astronomical earnings is down-heartening. I almost cut up my Chase card in protest. The wealthy despise the poor against whom only they can be declared extraordinary. Today our presidents, well-meaning or not, are behind bulletproof glass. They are in the shadow of big money. And some of the hopefuls have even convinced many of their fellow citizens that the only way forward is to follow their cash all the way to the banks they own. It’s not a presidential race, it’s a game where diamonds are trump.

The Witch

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The Witch, by Robert Eggers, is a parable. The movie accepts, and to appreciate it the viewer must too, that there is actually witchcraft in New England. Unless the witch too is a parable. Set in the days before the Salem Witch Trials, the movie is worthy of Lars von Trier on history. William and his family are exiled from their unnamed community due to differences of religious opinion. William and Katherine are a devout couple, steeped in the Puritan belief that all people deserve Hell and those who are good have no choice in the matter. They have a family of four children, and after they set up homesteading in exile, a fifth comes along. When the baby disappears, the eldest daughter, on the cusp of sexual maturity, is blamed. Portraying well the boredom of children raised in a world with no diversion, the girl, Thomasin, tells her little sister that she is a witch. In reality, she is a fearful, sin-sick girl, frightened for her future salvation. There is a witch, but it is not she.

Tragedy follows tragedy for the isolated family. Their religion permits them to believe it can only be punishment from God. They pray, recite Bible, and work hard. Their oldest son, abducted by the witch, returns home to die. The two youngest children begin to have fits, claiming that Thomasin has confessed to being a witch. Her mother, Katherine, believes them. Her father too, convinces himself that she is a witch and urges her to confess. The paranoia grows and Thomasin accuses her two younger siblings of witchcraft, speaking to the family’s black goat as their familiar. Confused, angry, and out of hope, the father locks the children in with the goats for the night, determined to find the truth in the morning.

I won’t add any spoilers for the ending here. Suffice it to say, this is a parable. Thomasin’s very name suggests “sin,” and her doomed brother is Caleb, the Hebrew word for “dog.” His recitation of the Song of Songs is distinctly creepy. God is absent from the movie, despite the family’s constant prayers. The only voice heard is that of the Devil. This is a parable of what happens when a religion goes wrong. The family left England to exercise their religion freely and the free exercise of it turns them against each other. The only ones who seem to find peace are those who leave their faith behind. It is a movie that I’ll ponder for many days, I suspect. Less a condemnation of religion than an open probing of what it’s logical outcome might be, The Witch is one of those movies that demonstrates the ongoing power of parables.

Writers and Readers

Writers are immortals. Well, at least as long as our species lasts. As a mere internet writer, I suppose that I’m not alone in wanted published books to my name. Solid books that don’t disappear in a power outage. There’s an immortality, no matter how mildewed or mouse chewed, to being in a book. Just two days ago Harper Lee died. And Umberto Eco. On the same day. Like many American kids, I was assigned To Kill a Mockingbird in school. Although I would go for decades without re-reading it, the novel stayed with me powerfully, the way that classics do. When it was assigned to my daughter’s high school class, I read it again, reinforcing the story that held me captive when I was a teen. In many ways it was an introduction into that confusing and convoluted world of adults. It was true, like most fiction is.

Umberto Eco I discovered in seminary. The Name of the Rose was one of the choices for assigned reading in Medieval Church History. Although less of a classic, it was no less real for all that. The work that hit closer to home, however, came when living in the Medieval city of Edinburgh. Foucault’s Pendulum was frightening in its conspiratorial intensity. Esoteric fanatics gather in an unholy profusion. Then, in the midst of reading it, a package, hand-addressed, arrived in my student mailbox. From Germany. Curious, I opened it only to discover a mound of tracts on Satanism, all the scarier for being written in German. They seemed to point to a conspiracy, just as I was reading about in Eco’s novel. Only after much searching (there was no internet to speak of in those days) did I trace them to the Schiller Institute. How they got my name, I never did learn.

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I haven’t read all the works of Lee or Eco. In fact, there are few writers whose entire oeuvre I’ve managed to read. That doesn’t mean that I love them any the less. All it takes is a powerful novel and you can be hooked for life. I leaned this in a profound way reading Moby-Dick in seminary. If there is another book that should be added to the Bible, that is the one. Writers are one of our least appreciated resources. They are, however, among the true immortals of our breed. Harper Lee and Umberto Eco left this world on the same day, only never really to leave it at all.

Rumors of Books

An off-the-cuff remark by Sandeep Mathrani, some CEO of something or other, had the publishing world buzzing a couple weeks back. The rumor began that Amazon.com was about to open hundreds of brick-and-mortar bookstores. After the opening of a store in Seattle, the idea—neither confirmed nor denied by Amazon—has made the book industry reassess its future yet again. Stock in Barnes and Noble immediately fell, but soon recovered. As someone whose entire life has revolved around books, I was glad to read the story. I have no idea of the business implications—I just don’t think that way—but the fact that book news was deemed newsworthy at all was heartening. Of course, it would be even better news if this signaled a growing interest in books.

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The book industry has been a steady one, despite worries and shifts of format, but it has never been as robust in America as it has been even in the small nation of Iceland. There are too many distractions for people to dedicate the quiet hours required to open a book and learn from it. When I sit on the bus and the driver has forgotten to turn on the overhead reading lights, almost nobody complains. Although I see some Kindles in the dark, it is often social media or movies that the person next to me is viewing. A longish bus ride, it seems to me, is the place for a book. Portable knowledge. Do we ever stop to consider the wonder of this anymore? All it takes is a rumor and the industry quivers.

Books, like monsters, are one of those topics that has an inherent connection to religion. No matter how secular a writing may be today, books have close ties to religion, and they always have. The great secrets of religious explorers and inventors are kept between the covers for any awaiting enlightenment. We have become a more secular people, but the religion of secularism is intellectual. The basis for such thinking comes in book form. For me, there’s always a sense of accomplishment with finishing a book. A gold star on the sticker chart. And I worry about books following the thylacine into extinction. And if the thylacine is something you don’t recognize, I have a book that I could recommend.

Philistines in Midtown

It’s an old story. In fact, it’s in the Bible. The enemies of Yahweh perish. Since Israel’s god could not be represented iconically, the story goes, an iconic ark stood in for the divine presence. After a certain unpleasantness with the Philistines, the ark was captured and taken to the temple of Dagon. There, the statue of Dagon fell down in worship before the ark. Philistine priests, embarrassed for their deity, set the statue upright again only to come back the next morning to find their god not only toppled, but decapitated. I’ve always found this story intriguing. I wrote an academic article about it some years ago, which, as far as I can tell, has been ignored by subsequent scholars of Dagon. Of course, the Philistine god eventually went on to fame at the hands of H. P. Lovecraft. Today most scholars are far too parsimonious to care about that, so I’m left to follow my imagination when it comes to the old gods.

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This past week, on my way to work, I spied a mannequin fallen in the Garment District. There used to be hundreds of fabric stores around here. I’m always interested in those that remain. Cloth is so basic to human needs. The mannequin was behind glass, behind a chain fence. She’d clearly fallen in the night. She was decapitated. Of course, Dagon came to mind. I’m sure that others walking by the store had the same thought. Fallen before the invisible almighty, an idol meets its end.

Once upon a time, I’m told, biblical literacy was common. I don’t mourn its passing because I believe society has become sinful, but I do mourn it because the stories are timeless and important. There is something very poignant about the idea of a foreign deity falling, headless, before an even more powerful, invisible foe. That foe these days is the equally omnipresent and omnipotent dollar. After all, I am standing in Midtown Manhattan where the only language that everyone can speak is that of Mammon. Writers of fiction and erudite scholars beyond the reach of mere mortals ponder the great mysteries of ancient gods. The rest of us walk the streets to our assigned places so that we may participate in its endless worship.

Seekers

We live not far from an upscale mall. This mall, although over 30 miles from Manhattan, has its own bus line dedicated to it by New Jersey Transit. There is a route that runs throughout the day from the City to this mall and back. My readers know I’m hardly an uptown type. Nevertheless, an occasional trip to the mall can be a learning experience. On a cold weekend where outdoor activities felt unnecessarily ascetic we went to stroll around to see what was new. In the midst of the usual stores I never visit, there was one that had the temporary feel of an exploratory venture in high rent retail. It was, for lack of an appropriate adjective, a “New Age” store, featuring figurines from eastern religions, incense, dragons, and the aesthetic of the hippie mystique. Wandering about, I couldn’t help but notice how much of the merchandise, in one way or another, was religious in orientation.

Those of us from the western hemisphere find the quotidian aspects of Hinduism and Buddhism exotic. Otherworldly, even. In our sterile offices, we dare not burn incense. Fabrics this colorful are not worn to work. It was as if the only place true color exists is in that mystical world that religions acknowledge, but businesses deny. Yes, it was a Saturday, but nevertheless the number of patrons surprised me. The town in which the mall sits is quite affluent. We live far enough from the City that some very serious money resides at no great distance. Patrons tend to have enough, and considerable surplus. And here they are, in a store selling that is undifferentiated spirituality. A stand of silver jewelry was explicitly marked Wicca. There were even Christian figurines among the crystals.

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People, even (or perhaps especially) the wealthy, desire more than the dollar can bring. We’re authoritatively told that we are meat computers. Mere automatons to the forces of physics. Our human experience tells us otherwise. We are meaning-seeking creatures. There are people who will willingly sit for three hours on a bus just to reach this mall. Whether it is a hippie-friendly shop, or the latest fashion trends that draw them here, they have this in common: they’re seeking something. I glance around and spy a mirror. I came here looking for a place out of the cold, but I have discovered an unexpected insight. If we make our own, or purchase it prefabricated, we venture to our secular cathedrals to find a kind of salvation.

Chilling Thoughts

GlaciersI don’t think much about glaciers. At least I didn’t. Now they keep me awake at night. Literally. I just finished Jorge Daniel Taillant’s Glaciers: The Politics of Ice. Never have these ice sheets ever seemed to have so much personality before. I don’t live near glaciers, but I have seen a couple. A number of years ago I visited Glacier National Park in Montana. It was summer and the one glacier that was right by the road (Highway to the Sun) was melting. It was the first glacier that I knowingly saw, and I went my usual way, not thinking any more about them. Taillant’s book, however, indicates why everyone should be concerned about ice sheets. Not only is global warming a reality, our ice caps are melting on what appears to be a runaway timetable and we are not likely able to reverse the process until the damage is done. Not only our ice caps endangered, but our glaciers as well.

Why should anyone care about glaciers? For purely selfish reasons, I might point out that they are crucial to supplying drinking water for much of the world. Looking at the globe, it seems there is plenty of water to go around. Only about 3 percent of all water on the planet is fresh water, however. And of that 3 percent about three quarters of it is locked up in glaciers. Glaciers are the only source of fresh water in dry climates during years of drought or excessive heat. Whatever water isn’t used as these ice giants melt flows into the ocean, becoming part of the salt water majority. When the glaciers are gone, they’re gone. They are part of the fine balance that makes life on earth possible. The politics enter the picture when Taillant reveals that large mining interests, particularly in South America, have been destroying glaciers to get at the gold underneath. They block legislation and provide disinformation, all in the name of wealth. When they destroy glaciers, they destroy future prospects for life in the regions they mine. It’s an issue of social justice.

On our little planet that seems so big, we don’t often stop to consider that we didn’t really show up here by accident. We evolved with the features that our planet gave us—notably water—and we have continued to thrive only in the presence of water. It has often been said that future wars will not be fought over petroleum, but water. We can live without oil. We can’t survive without water. And our industrial action is blithely wasting away the largest reserves of drinkable water on the planet. I don’t live near any glaciers. I’ve only seen one or two in my lifetime, but I now worry for their health. Their future is, in many respects, our future. And that makes me want to pour a glass of water and reflect.

Footprints in the Snow

A friend keenly aware of my interest in the unusual sent me a story about the “Devil’s Footprints” that sometimes occur in snow. The article focuses on an instance in England in 1855 but which was reprised in 2009. The prints, made by a bipedal, cloven-hoofed animal, surmount tall barriers and occur on rooftops as well as on the ground. Such a phenomena is not limited to England. Associated with the Jersey Devil, similar unusual trails were reported during the flap of sightings in the early part of the last century here in New Jersey. As the piece on Mental Floss states, this is most assuredly not diabolical work, but it does make me wonder why people associate the unknown with the Devil.

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As a character in world religions, the Devil can trace his (and, like God, he is almost always a male) origins to the Zoroastrians. Zoroastrian theology is a dualistic outlook: ultimate good versus ultimate evil, Good God versus Bad God. The idea synced particularly well with the burgeoning of apocalyptic thought that hovered in the air during the time that the people of ancient Judah came into contact with Persian thinking. The idea was toned down, of course, to a being with lesser powers than God, but still a real foe with which to contend. By the time of the New Testament, the Devil was ensconced and associated with the Persian accuser known by the title of “the Satan,” or the divine prosecuting attorney. How this character came to be associated with strange footprints in the snow traces an odd trail indeed. The key is the cloven hooves.

No description of the Devil exists in the Bible. The best evidence suggests that the horns, goatish bottom, and cloven hooves come from an association with the Greek demigod Pan. Why Pan was singled out as a particularly bad god is not known. He was popular in ancient Greece. It is certain that the Jews of Jesus’ time would not have recognized a cloven hoofed beast as devilish. The livelihood of too many relied on sheep and goats. Once the transformation took place in the imagination, unexplained cloven footprints appearing in the night suddenly became those of the Devil. As Stacy Conradt points out in her Mental Floss post, several suggestions have been made for creatures of the natural world and their snowy markers. We don’t know what makes the footprints, however, and winter is all the richer for it.

A Mighty Fortress

I have to admit to having not seen the Lego Movie. As a kid, I grew up without Legos. We were a family of modest means, so Lincoln Logs were more our style. When I first came to see Legos, they appeared restrictive to me with their pixel-like determination. Of course, Legos have come a long way since then. My wife sent me the story in Newsweek about the Martin Luther figure (not, I hear, featured in the movie) that surprised Playmobil, the parent company, by becoming their fastest selling figure ever. I suspect that the company put the figure out just a year before the five-century mark of the 95 theses that essentially created Protestantism, to catch a little of the interest that anniversaries always bring. Although I have no data to back me up, my guess is that the majority of sales have been to adults. Little Luther with his quill and German Bible, it seems, tickles adult minds more than pre-adolescent ones.

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This startling statistic ought to give pause to those who claim religion is irrelevant. Remember, Star Wars and Batman figures have also been available and collectable in Lego format. Even so, a German monk has outsold them all. This, it seems to me, indicates both an appreciation of irony and a very deep-seated need for finding meaning in life. After all, Star Wars is more than escapism. Lutherans are, by no measure, the largest Christian denomination. There is something, however, about Luther. Sure, those in the early modern period who had problems with the church were legion. Martin Luther did something about it. He took his life in his hands to address the wrongs he saw. Like most religious founders, he wasn’t advocating for a new religion, but a reformed one. The rest, as they say, is history.

The media tells us again and again that we are a secular people and that the church no longer moves us. Stagnating attendance figures and more vocal unbelief have become so common that many people feel a little embarrassed to admit that they believe something, anything. But do actions not speak more loudly than words? 34,000 Martin Luthers sold in 72 hours. Perhaps not Rock Star numbers, but very respectable for a bit of plastic. I wonder if this might not be a sign. Perhaps, with Luther, we ought to take the time to sit down and write out what we believe. Maybe our Wittenberg door should be that of Congress rather than a castle church. Or maybe it can be the door of our own minds. Luther, dead nearly half a millennium now, has shown us what a leader with vision can accomplish despite the centuries. And with a bit of plastic.