Monthly Archives: April 2016

Come Sail Oy Vey

Nothing says unorthodox like a headline that reads “Smart Jews? Thank the Extraterrestrials.” Breaking Israel News ran the story recently and, being constitutionally unable to pass up anything so strange, I had to take a look. The article, by Adam Eliyahu Berkowitz, is really just a half-century retrospective of Erich von Däniken’s Chariots of the Gods?. I remember fifty years ago—not well, mind you, I was only three—but even when I was a teenager and the book had its second (of many ordinal) gasp(s), and a movie came out. People, even those not traditionally labeled as “crazy,” flocked to theaters to see it. The book went through multiple printings. The era of “ancient astronauts” was born. Von Däniken, it seems, is alive and if not exactly kicking, still making people uncomfortable.

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In this news story von Däniken suggests that Jews are more intelligent because of their alien DNA. Don’t quote me on this, but I’m pretty sure that was the plot line of the X-Files season 10. Isn’t Fox Mulder Jewish? Maybe I’m getting myself mixed up in some kind of plot here. I have to admit, however, to having a touch of nostalgia for Chariots of the Gods?. There was a kind of innocence to it. Nobody seemed to be inseminating anyone else, or stealing babies. It was good, clean fun.

Something bothers me, however, about the assertion that aliens are, indirectly perhaps, responsible for holy writ. I remember thinking through the implications of this idea (already floated four decades ago) that God might be more Captain Kirk than Jesus Christ. It is inherently disturbing. Especially when von Däniken says in the interview that the Jews are the chosen people, but they just got the chooser wrong. ET instead of I AM. The really interesting part is that ancient astronauts have become a somewhat accepted cultural trope. I don’t know whether they were there or not (I wasn’t around at the time), but they sure do make Saturday afternoons much more interesting. One wish I hold is that people writing about this old idea might find a new opening bit. Ezekiel seeing the wheel has been done to death. Surely a bit of creative thought might suggest a new, undiscovered ancient truth.

Same Old Story

Once upon a time fairy tales were considered appropriate only for children. Unlike myths, fairy tales are frequently oral (yes, there are oral myths but this is not the place to discuss technicalities) and have origins that are obscure. A friend recently sent me a story entitled “Phylogenetic analyses suggests fairy tales are much older than thought” by Bob Yirka on phys.org. Using phylogenetic analysis, researchers have traced some fairy tales back thousands of years, into the Bronze Age of the ancient Near East. This will no doubt surprise some analysts who supposed fairy tales were a more recent, European invention. The tales change with time and distance, no doubt, but the basic story is very deeply rooted in who people are. Fairy tales are adult fare, after all.

I tried to make this point in an academic article that was rudely rejected by the journal Folklore some years back. I mean “rudely” literally. I’ve had academic articles rejected before—many of us have—but the letter that came with this one was insulting. My “error”? Suggesting that the story of the musician who travels to the underworld came from ancient Sumer. The article had its origins in my wife’s reading of the Mabinogion. The story of Bran’s head being washed down the river still singing reminded me of an Edinburgh ghost story the tour guides used to tell right outside our window. You’ve probably heard similar: a tunnel is discovered, a musician (a bagpiper, since this was Scotland) is sent down while playing so that those above can follow the sound, but the musician never emerges. I traced the story through the Celtic tradition of Uamh ‘n Òir, the cave of gold, through Bran, Orpheus, and finally back to Ishtar’s descent into the underworld. It was a fun piece, but serious. It ended up published in a Festschrift to a scholar with a noted sense of humor.

Photo credit: Kim Traynor, Wikimedia Commons

Photo credit: Kim Traynor, Wikimedia Commons

The fact is, traditional stories often go back very far in history. We haven’t the tools to trace many, nor can the results be taken for Gospel, but the implications can. People are storytellers by nature. We find meaning in what would today be called “fiction.” Too often I’ve had to hang my head in embarrassment when admitting to a fellow academic that I read (and sometimes write) fiction. It is something, however, that ancient mythographers and folklore singers would have understood. We can be academic some of the time, but we are human full-time. And telling stories is something that predates even the Bronze Age. Of that we can be completely certain. And they lived happily ever after.

Perceiving Religion

ViperHearth“Sticks and stones,” they used to tell me, “may break my bones, but words will never harm me.” We teach our children lies like that. I have been hit by sticks and stones—fortunately wielded by other children—but the things that hurt worst were the words. Some of those scars are still with me. I recently read Terryl L. Givens’ The Viper on the Hearth: Mormons, Myths, and the Construction of Heresy. It is my policy on this blog not to poke fun at religions of which I’m not a member. (Those that have been willing to take me on, well, they should’ve known what they were getting into.) I can’t say that I know many members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, but the few that I do know have been just like anybody else. Well, to be honest, they’re scholars so they are probably just as strange as the rest of us who spend too much time hitting the books. I don’t hold to their religious beliefs and they don’t hold to mine, so what’s the problem? Givens’ book shows what it’s like to be on the receiving end of those “harmless” words. Mormons, almost uniquely among religious groups, have been verbally castigated with impunity. This book is an attempt to answer the reasonable question “why?”.

As I read this account I found myself trying to put on Mormon shoes and walk in them for a while. Things sure looked different from that perspective. Things have changed in the nearly two decades since the book was published: Stephanie Meyers’ Twilight series brought Mormon fiction into the mainstream (Orson Scott Card, although he continues to charm the sci-fi crowd, hasn’t quite caught the crucial young lady demographic, it seems). We’ve had an LDS candidate for President of the United States. Even though Book of Mormon, the show, pokes fun, it is fair to say that you only get this level of attention when you’ve been mainstreamed. Protestant, Catholic, and Jew have all taken their knocks on the comedic front. Still, there is a poignancy to The Viper on the Hearth. Mormons, like other religious believers, are simply wanting to make the world a better place. This is perhaps the surest way to draw fire.

Givens provides some likely answers as to why the Mormons have been shunned by their fellow Americans. One reason that I didn’t notice (sometimes things escape me) but which might have put them in good company is a statement from the New Testament; prophets don’t seem very good at gleaning honor among their compatriots. It may be hard to trust a religion that comes from your own neighborhood. We know too well the corruption, the pettiness, the foibles of those who live next door. If we’re honest, we know that we have them too. No need to go outside. The glimmer of hope here in this nation of religious freedom is that things seem to have improved over the last few years. As Mormonism grows, ages, and becomes passé in the looming age of Nones, perhaps we’ll apologize for not only the sticks and stones, but for those weapons that hurt most sharply with no physical existence at all.

What’s the Message?

I said I’d come back to Bono. A story in the New Boston Post heralds a new documentary on Bono and Eugene Peterson. Both are famous in their own way, but no doubt Bono has the bigger name. Peterson, a pastor, is noted for his book The Message, a contemporary translation of the Bible. The documentary, “Bono and Eugene Peterson: The Psalms,” focuses on the book that brought rock star and scholar together, according to the story. The Psalms have a way of surprising people. In a day when the Bible is treated with considerable suspicion (how Bible scholars must feel, learning now that they are really rouges!) it’s sometimes easy to forget just how readable many of the Psalms are. The collection is, of course, uneven. Some are wonderful. Others are frightening and express immoral, if very human, sentiments. It is difficult to treat the Psalms as a whole.

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Having researched the Psalms in some depth, I found them to be one of the most challenging books to teach. We tend to have preconceived notions about the Psalter. That they are poems written by either David or God (neither of whom signed them). That they are comforting. That they are appropriate for any occasion. The reality is that Psalms is a most difficult book. Some of the poetry is sublime. Even up to the lifetime of yours truly, it could be assumed that many in secular society could recite Psalm 23 from memory. Not all of them are, however, quite so nice. Those that advocate murdering the babies of your enemies as less easy to consider holy writ.

The Psalms are generally a collection of human poetry. As I used to tell my students, whereas laws, and even narratives, are often top-down, the Psalms are one of the few places in the Bible where people are allowed to speak. There is joy in the Psalter, but there is also bitter frustration. Not all of the poems have happy endings. We seem to think that once a document becomes sacred it can no longer retain human fingerprints. The lie is given to this position in the Psalms. They are a most human book. Maybe the documentary will say why Bono finds this particular collection of poetry so inspirational. His is, after all, a human voice. There may be a message here since the Psalms are so fallibly human. And if nothing else, humans are experts at seeing the same thing in different ways.

Fast One Flood

I’m not sure what to believe anymore. This crisis of faith revolves not around religion, but around media. Pundits have been saying for some time that the internet has meant the slow death of journalism, and there are so many websites that redistribute news that its like the whole world is involved in a constant, perpetual game of “telephone.” All of this is preface to a story a friend sent me that appeared on the website God. I’m not sure I trust God. The story is too good to be true. At least in a schadenfreude sort of way. God is hosted on thegoodlordabove.com, and, well, we all know about dot coms. The article concerns the destruction of Answers in Genesis’ Noah’s Ark theme park by a flood. That is believable. Floods do occur, as Noah knew. What becomes unbelievable is that the National Weather Service forecaster stated that there were no storm clouds in the area at the time. That qualifies as a miracle.

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Did this really happen? I don’t know. I wasn’t there. Plenty of times when I was there (wherever there happened to be at the time) I wasn’t even sure what happened. Can I find the truth? One of the police sites for internet rumors is Snopes (also a dot com). I remember when Snopes began as a place to quell fears of urban legends. Back when the worldwide web was young, there was a verisimilitude to stories gleaned from the net. Living in the sparsely populated Midwest, it was easy to believe that some of these things could happen to you. At times I held onto Snopes like a crucifix, especially if I had to go out alone at night. Snopes tells me that thegoodlordabove is not to be trusted. The story is false, like others that have originated on the site. Answers in Genesis, unfortunately, is still going strong with its theme park.

Authoritative texts aren’t what they used to be. There was a day when all you had to do was pull a black leather book off the shelf to find the definitive answers. In Genesis or any other of the books. Now we rely on the worldwide consensus of the web. You can’t trust God on a website. Snopes, however, is pretty reliable. It’s the Scully to our natural Mulder. That’s why the web will never have the same impact as print media. Even the website for your bank or government can be cleverly faked. I might’ve looked no further had the purported flood not fallen from a cloudless sky. I guess I’d better be a wary believer. For the internet tells me so.

Gods and Rods

DramaGiftedChildThe human mind is an unsolved mystery. Oh, we know a lot about the brain, and advances in neuroscience have been startlingly swift. The mind, which is not the same as the brain, still eludes us. I took enough psychology courses in college that I could’ve declared it a minor, but being a minor I didn’t know enough to do so. Like many people from what used to be called broken homes, I wondered what made me think and act the way I did. I still do. Psychology shed some light on that, and although antipathy towards one’s parents has become a bad joke among those who belittle the science of the mind, there can be little doubt that there are patterns. Our youngest days, although we can’t remember them, make us who we become. I know my youngest days were difficult. I know they are with me still. I can’t remember them, but there are witnesses.

One of my readers suggested The Drama of the Gifted Child, by Alice Miller, to me. I was hesitant at first since I’m not gifted. My career has taught me that, if nothing else. Gifts are valuable, right? But the subtitle won me over: The Search for the True Self. Life has been that indeed. Miller, who is deceased, argued in this little book that unless the damage done early in life is recognized and mourned, it will lead to depression. This isn’t easy reading. It’s so easy to damage a child. Although most of us pretend differently, there are an awful lot of our species walking around with very deep, but invisible, scars. Just when I’m ready to dismiss the thesis, Miller provides examples. Examples in which I recognize something I wish wasn’t there. Consciousness can be a curse as much as a blessing. We don’t know where it comes from, or even what it is. It can drive you crazy, though.

Religion often prescribes child-rearing techniques. Many of us have the Bible to blame for being spanked as children. Larger, powerful adults violating the weak and controllable. Just because they can. Psychologically this is wickedness. I’ve read memoirs of children spanked excessively because the religion of the parents recommended it. Those who read Miller carefully will see that her case is well made. Perhaps one will dispute the conclusions, but the facts are there. Our childhood is necessary for our adulthood. And things that are impossible to see cause us to do things we don’t understand. Any religion that suggests beating a child is the path of righteousness has its directions utterly confused.

Story of God

Synchronicities come at kinds of synchronaddresses. After I had written a recent post on human sacrifice, I watched the first episode of Morgan Freeman’s The Story of God. My wife actually figured out how to get it without the miracle of the triple play, and we watched the initial installment on death. I’ve stated repeatedly on this blog, as I used to in my lectures, that death is a universal concern of religion. I wasn’t really expecting to learn anything new from the show, but it is a good idea to keep up with what hoi polloi are being told about the field in which I’m supposed to be a specialist. In any case, The Story of God is very much like Through the Wormhole, only from the other side. Science and religion. Religion and science. Like chocolate and peanut butter, two great tastes that taste great together. Really, I mean that.

So after telling us that the Egyptians may have invented the afterlife (although it’s clear they didn’t), the show takes us through other religious expressions: Christian, Hindu, Aztec. The Aztec segment brought up human sacrifice again, in its particularly grisly expression, as a means of thinking about what happens after death. In the light of the article I’d read (see last Sunday’s post) I couldn’t help but think how this was an ideal form of social control. There’s no doubt who’s in power when you’re looking up at your still beating heart, strangely cooled. As I’m pondering that heart, I’m thinking it wasn’t the Egyptians who first had this idea at all.

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Neanderthals, it appears, may have buried their dead. Even if they didn’t other ancient, pre-historic people did. And with grave-goods which, if you think about it, are rather superfluous without any afterlife in which to use them. It stands to reason, even before reason, that as soon as people began to recognize death, they had to be wondering what happened next. It is a bit simplistic to suggest that religion began because of the fear of death. It is also equally simplistic to suggest that death had nothing to do with the beginnings of what we call religion. People have died as long as there have been people. And survivors have carried on after the passing of others. Maybe we are all grown up now, but it seems that we aren’t fully human unless we give some sort of thought to what comes next. Even if the answer is “nothing,” it’s some kind of religious statement, whether intentional or not.